‘Dual’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

A no-frills sci-fi picture that invests only as much imaginative energy as required to explain its grabby premise, Riley Stearns’ Dual asks what it will take for a woman to be able to kill her own clone and keep her place in the world.

The bigger question, barely addressed here, is why she’d want to: Karen Gillan’s character is underdeveloped almost to the point of nonexistence, a woman who only perks up when her lab-grown replacement proves better at life than she is. That’s probably the movie’s point, but Stearns’ third feature (following Faults and The Art of Self-Defense) is his least satisfying so far; as visually drab as its predecessors, it has more difficulty mining its off-kilter aesthetic for nervous laughter and conceptual provocation.

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The only things we know about Gillan’s Sarah are a) she ignores her mother’s phone calls for days or weeks on end, and b) she’d rather watch porn than talk to her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale), who’s stuck out of town on a long-term assignment. So it beggars belief that, when told she has just a year to live, she chooses not to indulge every bucket-list fantasy but to spend all her money and time on something that will only benefit her “loved ones.” She buys a clone of herself and commits the coming months to teaching it how to imitate her.

(How does this clone, manufactured while-u-wait using just a saliva sample, emerge as a fully functional human who can speak, walk, and use makeup, but who doesn’t know what kind of food Sarah likes? Who knows.)

Sarah’s Double, as she’ll be known until the first Sarah is dead, is identical in every way except that her eyes are a different color. And she’s slightly slimmer, with shinier hair and better skin. And more interesting taste in clothes. Little wonder that Peter and Sarah’s mom (Maija Paunio) take to the counterfeit so readily, making Sarah redundant before she even dies. So it’s a problem, not a miracle, when Sarah’s terminal illness goes into complete remission. (Scenes with Sarah’s doctor represent the movie’s strongest efforts toward deadpan, nearly Kafkaesque black comedy. But even these are pretty weak attempts, and one may start to imagine, longingly, how funny an Albert Brooks version of this story would have been.)

For reasons we never learn, federal law forbids two versions of the same person to live beyond the replacement-training phase. One of the Sarahs will have to die — whichever survives a duel that (of course) will be televised for the world’s amusement. With a newfound lust for life, the original Sarah starts training for her deathmatch.

Shades of Stearns’ last film, Sarah finds a dojo. She hires a very serious trainer (Aaron Paul), who desensitizes her to violence and gives her some skills. In one of the film’s most amusing scenes, the two engage in slow-motion battle with a variety of weapons, each narrating imaginary wounds as they are inflicted. (Stearns stops short of depicting what happened every time I played this game as a child, which is that each slo-mo participant gradually speeds up to fend off blows, the action growing increasingly fast and vicious until somebody is killed. I’ve said too much.)

The problematic-clone theme is familiar enough that it alone won’t keep many viewers engaged for 90 minutes, though Stearns does find an intriguing third-act complication or two. Gillan, who has spent much of her post-Doctor Who decade playing cyborgs, computer avatars and a thinly imagined assassin, has a barely more human role to play here; to the extent that she makes either Sarah worth rooting for, it’s an achievement.

But the film does make the most of its meager ingredients in its closing scenes. Here, both women weigh their empathy and their ruthlessness and finally ask some questions viewers have had since the outset. Perhaps the biggest one being, what will it mean to win this contest?

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