Calvin and Hobbes had a story arc in 1991 in which Calvin, having previously cloned himself with disastrous results, upgraded his copy machine with an “Ethicator” to manifest a twin from his good side. The scheme goes smoothly at first. The clone’s tireless virtue provides Calvin with a smoke screen while he refuses schoolwork and chores. Then the clone courts Susie Derkins, a bridge too far for Calvin, and the two fight while Hobbes looks on with a quip, “How existential can you get?”
Director Riley Stearns brings that same energy to his third feature film, dual, a gentle sci-fi morality tale about the complications of cloning but steeped in a version of the machoism that fueled his latest film, The art of self defense. Fresh from its premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, dual is sleek and efficient, a ruthless dark comedy that pits humans against duplicates in a fierce battle of wills. The film is many things, but it is not comfortable viewing.
Stearns takes the story in an indefinite future that is technologically similar to ours – smartphones and tablets are commonplace – except for the practice of cloning as an option for people on the verge of death. For Stearns, that person is Sarah (Karen Gillan), who suffers from a rare disease that will wipe her out in an unknown window of time.
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Enter Sarah’s double (also Gillan), her clone or “surrogate”. dual‘s usage. Aside from the eye color, a flaw in the cloning process that is easily fixed by contact lenses, she is physically an exact match for Sarah. Sarah teaches Sarah’s double (her government name) about her favorite foods, music and sex positions to ensure she keeps her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) and her mother (Maija Paunio) from grief when she dies.
Then Sarah’s terminal illness miraculously fully regresses, meaning Sarah and Sarah’s double must fight to the death for the privilege of being Sarah. That’s the law. So Sarah bonds with a fight trainer, Trent (Aaron Paul), and prepares to kill herself. How existential.
dual is a surprising spiritual cousin of Benjamin Cleary swan song, where cloning had a similar function for people with upcoming expiration dates. Stearns, of course, approaches the subject aesthetically and morally. There is little detail as to the “how” or “why”, only the expectation that the audience will give up disbelief and accept the film’s basic conceit. dual presents cloning as a natural part of society where we have little reason to question the science.
However, we have more Reason to grapple with the idea that a government-mandated fight trial poses a greater ethical conundrum than cloning in the first place. Why can’t there be two Sarahs? When did the world adopt highlanders as ethos?
Gillan is a talented actress and brings carefully modulated character differences to both Sarah and Sarah’s double. Sarah is a bummer and an anxious mess. Halfway through dual, Peter confronts her with the blunt truth that he would still break up with Sarah even if Sarah’s double played no part in their relationship. In comparison, Sarah’s double, straight from the clone line, is sassy and bright. She is neither burdened by her mortality nor clouded by the passage of time. She’s Sarah, but lively and sexier. Sarah probably would quiet wants to murder her without the prescribed dual.
dualThe dark peculiarities of . give us a chance to think about it our Moment.
Gillan portrays these slight contrasts with ironic effect, expressing emotion primarily through her eyes. That is the point. Shakespeare says the eyes are windows to the soul. Sarah and Sarah’s double have different eyes and therefore different souls. but dual is less about the soul and more about cultural mores and bureaucratic institutions and how they dehumanize Sarah by playing her off against her better self. This is not a world that values positive self-improvement. Sarah does improve, but only in an effort to kill Sarah’s doppelganger. Credit where it’s due: At least the dual gives her a goal to shoot at.
Stearns orchestrates the build-up to philosophical violence with his trademark whimsicality, burning punch lines into stilted character interactions instead of his script. dual reaches black comic peaks when Sarah meets Trent, a loner and weirdo like her. Aaron Paul plays him with what reads as a performative veteran. Trent knows what he’s talking about like someone knows what he’s talking about after reading Wikipedia and posting YouTube videos. He’s a chair expert with a practiced tough-guy pretense. (Stearns doesn’t bring that thought to the film, but Trent could be a surrogate himself.)
dual However, it’s not about replacements integrating themselves into the lives of their originals. It’s about what people are willing to do when faced with death not ready to do so, which has sad relevance as we agonize through another year of Covid. That’s outside the scope of what Stearns is doing here. But movies don’t get to choose their moments, and dualThe dark peculiarities of . give us a chance to think about it our Moment. Maybe crooked gallows humor doesn’t quite fit the material, but its sobering effect can hardly be shaken.
dual Premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2022.