Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James, Maija Paunio, June Hyde
Director: Riley Stearns
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s always tough to be second. I’m not talking about the First Runner up for Miss Universe or those who finish mere tenths of a breath behind the top racer in the Daytona 500. What I mean is arriving at a Halloween party wearing a costume you toiled over for days only to enter right after someone in a store-bought ready-to-wear ensemble that puts your handmade one to shame. It’s the same way for movies. No matter how good a movie might be if it’s similar in plot to one that has recently come out, the act of comparison alone could be enough to sink the flick before it even has a chance to make its impression on audiences.
We have a bit of a funny situation with Dual, the new thriller with science fiction elements from director Riley Stearns. The story of a woman being told she’s dying and being offered the chance to clone herself to ease the pain of the loss for her family and friends bears a striking resemblance to December’s Swan Song, an AppleTV+ release. That Mahershala Ali and Glenn Close drama was decidedly excellent but flew so low under the radar it failed to catch on in key end-of-year discussions when it desperately needed to gain traction. Despite it being much deserving of an Oscar nomination for Ali, it only managed a BAFTA and Critics Choice nom and a handful of outer circle critical nods.
That wound up being good news for Dual. While many critics were fond of Swan Song (i.e., those who had the opportunity to have it practically delivered to their doorstep), it’s a mostly unknown entity, so Dual’s cloning plot could skate by without suffering much in comparison. The two films couldn’t be more different in their style, not to mention tone and overall entertainment. Where Swan Song walked through some deeply emotional territory and used its running time to take audiences on a moving journey of loss and acceptance, Dual is the opposite. Chilly and aloof, it’s overly methodical and leads to a plodding pace that makes the action feel so very much longer than it is. Darkly satirical in its best moments and artfully inert at its worst, Stearns and his cast spend the film in a frustrating dance with the audience, always leading with too much force and never on beat with the natural rhythm of language.
The briefest of prologues show a man (Theo James, Archive, a far more exciting sci-fi thriller) doing his best to avoid death by crossbow from an assailant we can’t see. One of the men eventually overtakes the other, attempting to outmaneuver his opponent in front of a somber crowd of spectators. A supposed secret is revealed that anyone who watched the trailer or read the synopsis will already know. Shifting focus over to Sarah (Karen Gillan, Oculus), we get only fringe information at the outset on the woman, mostly about secret indulgence in vices while her boyfriend (Beulah Koale, Shadow in the Cloud) is gone on an extended business trip.
When Sarah begins coughing up blood and is told she has a terminal stomach disease, she reacts quite the opposite one might expect. You feel Sarah has been written (or is being played by Gillan) as slightly on the spectrum. While that gives the character some engaging angles when confronting the serious situations she’s about to face, it’s perhaps a bit too mannered a demeanor overall. By the time she meets her clone (given blue eyes by mistake, and thus a 10% discount), the two are as alike in robotic responses as they are in looks. As the compliant clone gets to know Sarah and the loved ones who don’t seem to like the original much, what was meant to be a balm for their sorrow turns into the accessible girlfriend/daughter they had always wanted.
This shift of gears to the clone being more appreciated than her inspiration is when the movie began to get interesting, especially on the heels of Sarah figuring out her terminal diagnosis was false and now she’d be forced to fight her clone to the death. Unskilled in defense, she turns to a cheap trainer (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed) who walks her through everything she needs to know to be as prepared for the ultimate battle of self.
There are flashes of the fun black comedy Dual wants to be at various times throughout the 94-minute film, but too much of it runs on a stilted stutter. Sarah’s interactions with a riotously blank doctor (June Hyde) are golden, as are many scenes that find her loosening up with Paul and learning to love letting her guard down. Stearns doesn’t seem to feel the same way because we’re quickly back to monotone back and forth between the Sarahs with the original suffering one injustice after another. Ostensibly taking place in the future but blessedly free from looking futuristic, it’s a low-key production that lets the script do the work and actors pull up the slack. As stated above, Gillan’s choices for the role are intriguing but make it hard to get near enough to the character to find compassion. Capped by an ending amounting to a significant shoulder shrug and heavy sigh, Dual needed to feel more singular to stand out.