Producers: Nate Bolotin, Aram Tertzakian, Lee Kim, Riley Stearns, Nick Spicer and Maxime Cottray Director: Riley Stearns Screenplay: Riley Stearns Cast: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Maija Paunio, Sanna-June Hyde, Theo James, Elina Jackson and Kris Gummerus Distributor: RLJE Films
In the hands of different filmmakers an identical premise can take vastly divergent paths. In last year’s “Swan Song,” Benjamin Cleary treated a tale of a terminally ill man who had a clone of himself made to save his wife and son from grief at his passing with earnestness, turning it into a tearjerker. In “Dual,” Riley Stearns uses a similar idea for darkly satirical effect, though beneath the surface there rumble serious existential questions.
Karen Gillan is Sarah, a young woman who learns (accidentally from her boyfriend, rather than her doctor) that she has one of those rare, incurable, fatal diseases so common in movies. Told about a program called Replacement, which provides clones for such unfortunates, she contracts for a duplicate of herself to be made.
Unlike in “Swan Song,” in which much was made of the experimental process the protagonist, Cameron (Mahershala Ali), had to undergo with the system’s creator (Glenn Close), here the technical stuff is gotten through lickety-split. But in both cases there follows a period during which the clone must learn from the original, and it’s during the course of that process that the latter has second thoughts—though the reasons differ. In Cleary’s film, Clarence’s love was so great that he couldn’t help but interrupt the takeover; in Stearns’s, Sarah’s disease goes into remission, and she learns that her duplicate has already assumed the preferred position with her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) and mother (Maija Paunio), much to her distress.
There’s also a catch in the initial agreement with the cloning company. Though Sarah believed that she could cancel the contract and decommission her clone if she chose, her duplicate, who now wishes to go on living, can file a demand for a duel-to-the-death with the original instead. (The circumstance seems to be fairly frequent, since a prologue shows such an event—televised, no less—involving a fellow played by Theo James.) So Sarah begins training for the ordeal with Trent (Aaron Paul), a regimen that increases her physical fitness but severely strains her bank account—something easily explained by the fact that she seems to have no job. (Stearns appears to have a yen for extended training sequences, as witnessed by his previous film, “The Art of Self-Defense.”) But in the end both Sarahs have second thoughts about their second thoughts.
One can feel deeper ideas about the meaning of life rippling through “Dual”—a title that itself obviously doubles. But those the viewer must infer from the narrative, since Stearns plays things out like a sour, deadpan joke. The original Sarah is played as a totally affectless person by Gillan, a near-automaton with a clipped speech pattern and a blank stare, and her motivations, whether in the initial choice to be cloned or the later one to destroy her clone in battle, are never really explored; it seems a matter in the first case of mere dutifulness and in the other of pique. And since the focus remains almost exclusively on her, with the duplicate pretty much relegated to the sidelines until she reappears in the last act, Sarah II’s interior life is even more opaque. That makes the twist outcome Stearns contrives one to which a shrug might be the proper response.
Yet there’s no denying Gillan’s steadfast adherence to the original Sarah’s oddity, or her ability to express subtle differentiation between her and the clone. Her interactions with Paul’s businesslike Trent (especially a scene in which they mimic in slow-motion a pretended duel) and with Sanna-June Hyde, playing a doctor as flatly unemotional as her patient, are also genuinely amusing. The remainder of the cast contribute to the low-voltage mood Stearns cultivates, and so does the technical crew—cinematographer Michael Ragen, production designer Sattva-Hanna Toiviainen and costumer Janne Karjalainen. (The fact that the film was shot in Finland may have helped to convey the vaguely foreign feel Stearns was clearly aiming for.) Sarah Beth Shapiro edits in a lapidary style befitting the director’s approach, and Emma Ruth Rundle’s score doesn’t belabor the quirkiness.
“Dual” could merit a look because of Gillan’s committed lead performance(s), but its satiric bite fails to cut as deeply or provocatively as it might.