Clones are a common figure within the realm of the sci-fi genre. The usage of clones and robots has increased drastically, especially when covering themes surrounding existentialism, the ethics of cloning, and what it means to be human. Finding ways to make these themes feel fresh and new with a clone-like/robotic-like figure nowadays can be difficult. This is something Riley Stearns’ DUAL struggles with. Its focus on the lengths a person will go to remain alive once deemed replaceable is an interesting enough hook. However, the intentional disconnect onscreen makes it difficult to capture attention. And, while the dry, deadpan humor exhibited by the bulk of its cast works at times, it won’t work for everyone due to occasional awkward execution and timing.
DUAL stars Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy franchise), Beulah Koale (“Hawaii: Five-0”) with Theo James (Divergent franchise) and Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”). DUAL is the third feature film by writer/director Riley Stearns, who many will know from his work on The Art of Self Defense.
The audience is introduced to the general idea of what DUAL will encompass in its cold open (featuring Theo James). We jump then to Sarah (Karen Gillan). A woman stuck in a perpetual miserable stasis, struggling to connect with her loved ones, she soon discovers that she is going to die. A cloning procedure is suggested to help ease the loss for her family and friends, with Stearns briefly touching upon how awkward that might be for some. A nice addition. Sarah agrees to the cloning procedure but, in a dramatic twist of fate, she goes into remission. At that point, her clone knows enough about the world to argue against her being decommissioned. This leads to a court-mandated duel to the death, which given how political systems have been poorly designed to harm the under-privileged forever, this tracks. With one year to train her body, Sarah has to get ready to fight for her life or die trying.
There is a distinct commitment from Karen Gillan to play Sarah as cold and closed off. The character keeps her distance from everyone else, despite her desire to do right by them. The character is clearly depressed prior to the stroke of fate that gets handed to her. Gillan hits the emotional nuances that the direction takes her down. While closed off, there is a woman struggling. The insecurities are bubbling just under the surface. However, when fate decides that Sarah isn’t going to actually die, the slow awakening out of her stupor becomes the arc the story desperately needs.
That said, it’s difficult to connect with DUAL. Whether due to the intentionally cold environment created onscreen, the characterization, or the humor, the failure to click with what’s happening can’t be ignored. And the thing is, all the elements are there to invoke interest. A dystopian program that only allows one copy of a person to live at one time? Gold. The literal idea of facing yourself head on? Great. The ethics surrounding killing someone who looks like you? Cue the think pieces. Perhaps, it is the lack of chemistry between the characters. Given that the better moments in the film are when Gillan and Aaron Paul work one-on-one together and the awkward comedic stylings between the two gets to shine, that might be the case.
In general, DUAL will leave many feeling conflicted. I know that in writing this review, I found myself struggling because my thoughts were so mixed. As the end credits roll, we are left to feel unsettled. But the impact isn’t as great as it could have been. And, again, I have to swing back to that disconnect. The gallows humor, when done well, hits hard. There are moments in here that will bring out a chuckle. But, other times, the execution is ill-timed or awkward. Throw in Sarah, a character who fails to generate that connection with the people around her and the audience, DUAL is a mixed bag.
DUAL is now in theaters, and on digital, on-demand, and streaming on AMC+ on May 20, 2022.
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