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Dual is a strange movie about a strange world. It’s set in a future in which terminally ill humans can purchase clones to replace themselves after death. But when one such patient goes into remission, her double refuses to be “decommissioned.” In such rare cases, the state mandates a duel to the death, with the winner receiving the prize of continuing to live as the original person. We learn all of this in the first few scenes, as we watch Sarah (Karen Gillan) go through the process, from her initial diagnosis to the scheduling of the duel. It’s a lot of information but not too much. It makes you lean forward in your seat. Here is a movie you have not seen before.
Technically, Dual is dystopian sci-fi, as it’s set in a world of advanced technology coupled with an oppressive justice system. But writer-director Riley Stearns (The Art of Self-Defense) isn’t interested in showing off with excessive world-building or big action set pieces. Instead, its dystopia is relayed through its characters. You notice it first in their speaking styles. They all talk plainly and directly, without affectation or even basic manners.
“I’m going to die. I’d like to schedule a consultation,” she says on the phone. When Sarah receives the news of her illness, she doesn’t cry, and when she is informed of her remission, there’s no rejoicing. It’s not just life-and-death decisions that are handled matter-of-factly; when her mother (Maija Paunio) and boyfriend (Beulah Koale) shockingly choose to keep the clone in their lives, effectively leaving Sarah in total isolation, they do so with no arguments or histrionics. Without exposition, Stearns paints a terrifying portrait of our future in which emotional closeness is a thing of the past.
In Dual, everyone is dispassionate, but especially Sarah. Before her diagnosis, she lived a plain and uneventful life. Her boyfriend is always off on business trips, and she spends her waking hours drinking, eating junk food, and watching porn—an avatar for modern loneliness. Being forced into battle awakens her. She begins working with low-rent combat trainer Trent (Aaron Paul), an expert in these duels who teaches her everything from weapons training to violence desensitization. In one of the film’s best scenes, he shows her corpse photos and asks her to guess what they died from. It’s not entirely clear how this prepares her for battle; like much in Dual, it’s novel and charming but not particularly impactful.
I kept expecting something resembling a point to emerge, but Dual turns away from the hard pleasures of cinema. There is no catharsis—you need emotionally engaging characters for that. There are no themes explored and no ideas that resonate, only a vague sense of childlike play and imagination that provides the film’s few moments of delight. The training sequences in particular feel like something a kid would have dreamed up; Trent and Sarah map out a duel in slow-motion with fake handmade weapons. If you squint, you can see yourself at six playing with a lightsaber. Similarly, Trent’s ominous offer to have Sarah pay for her classes with a service that is “mutually beneficial” hints at a feminist underpinning to its dystopian themes, but instead Stearns pays it off in a delightfully innocent way.
It’s okay for a film to have modest aims, but Dual just feels unfinished. In shying away from conventions, it forgets to replace them with something the viewer can use. A case in point is Gillan’s impersonal performance—she uses the same halting, unemotional speech patterns that she does as the alien Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an actorly choice that may have made sense in rehearsal but detracts mightily from the story. Gillan never invests in the character, and so neither do we, not in Sarah, the film, or the world it creates. It’s true: Dual is not a movie you’ve seen before, but maybe that’s for the best.
Dual will be released in theaters on Friday, April 16.