Sundance 2022

Dual review – clone war sci-fi doesn’t quite reach its full potential

Karen Gillan is usurped by her own duplicate in writer-director Riley Stearns' intriguing but not entirely fulfilling future yarn

The opening minutes of Riley StearnsDual has the air of a twisted young adult franchise installment: the central character is played by Divergent star Theo James and the set-up is a tad Hunger Games-ish, with two men battling each other for their lives on a football pitch, the audience seemingly unbothered by the carnage as they watch it all unfold from the bleachers.

What comes next, however, could not be further from the bubblegum dystopia of the 2010s. Violently vomiting blood, Sarah (Karen Gillan) walks into a hospital to receive a battery of exams. The young woman is dismissive of her health, downing a beer moments after receiving medical orders to abstain.

Sarah is dismissive in general, her natural state being one of utter carelessness – she eats, sleeps and masturbates in a sofa moulded by her shape. Her clothes are monochromatic variations of joggers, T-shirts and hoodies, while her social interactions are seemingly limited to screening her needy mother’s calls and FaceTiming her passionless partner, whose work trips are filled with all the liveliness that Sarah's existence lacks.

It is, then, perhaps an exercise in self-love that leads Sarah to opt in for replacement service when presented with the bleak prognosis of certain death. As recently explored in Benjamin Cleary’s poignant Swan Song, the world of Dual allows for cloning as a way of combating bereavement. Assured she will soon be dead, Sarah goes into a clinic and, a mere moments after signing the papers, is confronted with an almost perfect replica of herself.

Sarah’s double comes out of the technological womb with needs and desires of her own, many of which are diagonally opposed to those of the original. Swiftly, the brand new double wins over the scattered few that still matter in Sarah’s life, as the moribund woman experiences the sting of oblivion before her actual demise.

The trick is that her inevitable demise never comes. Underachiever Sarah finally overachieves, beating her incurable disease. But with the riddance of one problem comes another, as Sarah learns that there can only be one version – and the replacement won’t willingly remove herself from the equation. The solution to this conundrum is a duel to death, with the winner deemed the one and only Sarah.

Stearns’ third feature is at its most interesting when it rummages through the existential ripples of the government mandate duels. With humanity going full medieval to deal with the consequences of its greedy desire to play God, people are submitted to what is especially an and out-of-body suicide. At a Duel Survivors Support Group, a warped version of an AA meeting, all the winners can talk about is their losses, which are overwhelming and never-ending. Guilt and shame devour those who were left behind, burdened with the weight of wondering whether life was worth killing for after all.

There is much to love in Dual, from the intriguing institutional politics that are set in place to regulate this Brave New World, to the amusing relationship between Sarah and her hip-hop-dancing fight coach, played by a far too scarce Aaron Paul. Yet, this rumination on what makes us human is hampered by a hamstrung need to dilute tension, the sustained deadpan tone initially amusing but eventually proving tiresome. Out of breath by the time it reaches its lukewarm conclusion, this mostly unpretentious sci-fi ultimately misses its shot at greatness.

Dual was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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