“Amusing from moment to moment and well-performed, but leaves so much on the table once it indicates how much deeper it actually wants to go.”
by Ken Bakely
As with everything about Riley Stearns’ Dual, the premise is explained – both to the audience and to its characters – in a deadpan, straightforward manner, emblematic of a world where bizarre, dangerous, and horrific ideas are introduced and accepted without question, and the only thing left to do is navigate within their surreal spaces. This turns out to be unevenly successful in execution, but you can’t say that it doesn’t commit to establishing the plot. It’s all one self-consciously logical, linear sequence: first, Sarah (Karen Gillan) is told she is terminally ill when her doctor (Sanna-June Hyde) explains to her that she has a condition which carries near certain-fatality except for a 2% “margin of error,” but she certainly isn’t in that. Then she is introduced to the new technology of doubling, in which those who are about to die can have replicas of themselves made in order to ease the burden on their loved ones, which include her boyfriend (Beulah Kohle) and mother (Maija Paunio), both of whom have limited interest in her as a full person to begin with, and would hardly notice the difference. Then she decides to have a clone made. Then her doctor tells her that, surprise, she’s not ill and won’t die after all. Then she’s told that it would be illegal for her and her clone to co-exist in the same world. Then she is told that in such predicaments, the original human and the clone must fight to the death as part of a new spectator sport. Then she starts training with Trent (Aaron Paul), who will teach her how to kill her fake self in the upcoming duel.
It’s all one thing after another, delivered with dry precision through self-evident deadpan. This is the point. Dual wants to make its viewers uncomfortable by plunging them into a setting in which every possible quandary is addressed with the absolute maximum detachment, squeezing every last drop of spontaneous emotion from its human characters as they deliver hilariously on-the-nose dialogue in flat registers (its pun-driven title notwithstanding). Adding to the irony, of course, is that Sarah does all of this while trying to prove she has a right to exist on her own. It’s a difficult balance to write, and difficult to perform, but Gillan – playing both roles, distinguished only by Clone Sarah having a different eye color – is very good here, able to carry the film despite having definitionally little emotion or spirit to convey in either character. She allows the absurdity of the situation to organically shine through, and leads a fine supporting cast who all neatly slide into their eccentric roles. The cast is representative of the movie’s strengths in general: much of the entertainment in watching Dual comes from getting to explore its cheerfully bewildering universe. To that end, Stearns’ best work as both a writer and director comes when he lingers in the details: individual dialogue exchanges, the journey that Sarah goes on when she starts training with Trent, and of course, how Sarah and Clone Sarah interact.
This is all well and good, but beyond this, Dual struggles to take its broad ideas and combine them into a cohesive whole. As the story places itself within fairly concise parameters – of where it’s going and what it will apparently build towards, and absolutely nothing around the edges – the narrative and stylistic literalism that makes it so engaging and entertaining in the setup isn’t as successfully translated into its finale, which is more rote, predictable, and lackluster by comparison. There’s a feeling that the movie can’t realize its own meaning and objectives in the abstract; what does it really want? It makes gestures and abstractions at some of its ideas – considering the fight for personal autonomy, all within a society that will placate and numb its denizens to even the most hideous and dehumanizing ideas – but it ends up being very little at all. Its satire seems strangely incurious in the end, leaving with an ending that is unsatisfying and indicative of the movie’s weaknesses at large: it is very good with details, individual observations, and the minutiae of its worldbuilding, but struggles to form anything larger or more encompassing. Dual winds up as an intermittently successful movie – one that’s amusing from moment to moment and well-performed, but leaves so much on the table once it indicates how much deeper it actually wants to go.