Karen Gillan must fight herself to the death. That’s the premise of Dual, a weird, funny, new sci-fi film from director Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defence). Gillan plays Sarah, a disconnected woman who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. She’s going to die, there’s no way around it. And so she does what many people do in the world of Dual. Finance a clone she can train to become her, so her death won’t be as painful for her loved ones. Which goes fine, until Sarah miraculously recovers. And now one Sarah has to go.
From the very first frame, Stearns has a very clear vision of what this world is and how the story will be told. Could he tell this story as a straight action movie? Sure. But right off the bat there’s humour, there’s sadness, and Sarah is the perfect conduit. She’s the kind of person who at some point had a happy life but somehow let it slip away, which the people around her can feel. So as this new second Sarah comes into the mix, it’s easy to see why she fits in even better than the original. She’s Sarah without the baggage of life, so it’s almost like she’s coming face to face with an older version of herself.
Some of the best parts of Dual are the exploration of what it means to have two different versions of you existing at the same time. Which, as you can imagine, results mostly in a lot of very awkward moments, and some funny ones too. This might be a big sci-fi idea, but it’s told in a grounded, familiar package, which makes it all that much more impactful.
Dual has even more fun when we learn about the duel between the two Sarahs. The rules of it, why it has to happen, how it happens, and what the result is. That’s where Aaron’s Paul’s character fits in. Paul plays a trainer whose job is to train people for these duels. And as Sarah trains with him, the world becomes even more compelling as she beings to realise her old life is not as bad as she thought.
It’s important to remember, though, that the film is called “Dual,” not “Duel.” While the “duel” is the carrot on a stick, Sterns is more interested in exploring the implications of the duality. Through his lens, we see both sides of a singular existence and, as a result, can begin to really think about our own lives. Which, according to the filmmaking, might not be as bad as we think.
Gillan is excellent as both Sarahs, neither of which are particularly great people, but both of which have a worthy humanity. Paul adds fun flavour in his limited screen time (including a stand out dance sequence) and the tone lands somewhere in the middle of it all. To me, that’s the one big problem with Dual: There’s just a little too much awkward humour that is cringey on purpose. Pauses last a little too long, the production design can be unpleasant and run down. In a few scenes with both Sarahs, the feeling doesn’t blend with the interesting, philosophical issues at hand, and the story suffers.
By the end, when Dual finally gets to its point, Sterns has a clear voice and the choices made back it up. The journey to get there is not always smooth but the futuristic world, provocative questions, and various perspectives on life make Dual work much more than not.
Dual had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and was purchased by RLJE Films. It’s hoping to release later this year.