Riley Stearns’s dark comedy about a death match between clones has an appealing premise, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark
23 February 2022
Coming in 2022
FROM its very first scene, Dual throws us into a highly disturbing world. The film, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, opens with a man standing on a football pitch in front of an array of weapons. While he hesitates over which one to pick, his opponent takes the opportunity to shoot. It soon transpires that the attacker is a clone of his victim, and that the pair are locked in a fight to the death that is being televised for a bloodthirsty audience.
This intriguing opening scene precedes the introduction of Dual‘s lead character, a young woman called Sarah (Karen Gillan). We learn that she has a penchant for porn and booze, and has somewhat unhealthy relationships with her boyfriend and mother. Then she is hospitalised with severe gastrointestinal bleeding and discovers that she is terminally ill. To soften the blow, her doctor offers her the option of a “replacement”, a hastily produced yet physically perfect genetic copy, which she can train to slot into her life after she is gone. The main selling point is that it will save her loved ones from the pain of losing her. Struggling to process the news, Sarah signs up and sets about training her replacement to take over her life.
But here is the twist: 10 months later, Sarah is still alive and her condition is no longer terminal. Yet her double has replaced her so successfully that even her estranged boyfriend and mother prefer the copy to the original. At this highly improbable point in the story, Dual‘s narrative coherence begins to fall apart.
In the film, the laws surrounding cloning state that there can only be one living version of each person. If the original Sarah isn’t dying, then one of them must die. Sarah assumes this will be the copy, but her loved ones disagree. They cut her out of their lives and start a legal procedure to protect her double.
The law also states that such matters can only be settled via a fight to the death. Oddly, it seems that Sarah wasn’t aware of this risk at the outset, despite these sorts of fights being regularly broadcast on TV. Stranger still, Sarah doesn’t seem to hold a grudge against her boyfriend, meeting him for lunch even after he has sentenced her to a death match.
Things get even weirder when she starts training with a bizarre combat instructor called Trent (Aaron Paul, best known as Breaking Bad‘s Jesse Pinkman). He tasks her with visiting an autopsy and shows her pictures of mutilated bodies to get her used to the sight of gore. Training also involves hip-hop dancing and a bizarre scene where they practice fighting in slow motion.
Dual is meant to be a dark, deadpan comedy, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. The realistic violence shown throughout just isn’t funny, and the eerie score and atmosphere make the film feel more like a thriller. Yet it doesn’t fit well into that genre either. Events unfold in too surreal and nonsensical a fashion to maintain an acceptable level of credibility. The ending feels like a psychological drama, but one that is far too predictable. The lack of stylistic focus is reflected in the actors’ performances, which shift between a puzzling apathy and perplexing moments of overacting.
It seems that director Riley Stearns aims to satirise the society we live in, where people repress their feelings and enjoy the spectacle of violence. Yet this message is delivered clumsily and doesn’t make up for the frustrating viewing experience. All in all, Dual feels like a missed opportunity. Establishing clearer rules for this dystopian world – and sticking to them – would have significantly improved the quality of this effort and done justice to what, on the face of it, is an appealing premise.
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