Although science fiction is a genre that makes use of many outlandish and impossible concepts, cloning is perhaps one of the most popularly deployed. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps it’s due to its thematic value as a storytelling device, how a clone could represent our other self. Perhaps it’s because of its plausibility, humans have already cloned animals and it’s not difficult to imagine a future in which we have perfected the method to create other humans. In Riley Stearn’s Dual, it grazes over both of these topics and more but ultimately focuses around one thing: the weight of mortality.
Dual follows a woman named Sarah played by Karen Gillan who learns that she has an incurable and rare fatal condition. The world she inhabits is quite like our own but with one startling difference, clones exist, and they do so with a specific purpose, to take over the life of someone who has died. Sarah chooses to commission a clone for herself for her distant boyfriend and clingy mother, whom she limits contact with. Sarah must teach her new clone how to occupy her life, but things become complicated when Sarah’s double is no longer wanted.
It is a difficult film to connect to. Although Sarah’s experiences hover in between the relatable and the unrelatable, they’re close enough to plausibility so that the audience can sympathize. Or rather, the script is desperately relying on that sympathy. As a stylized dark comedy, the characters are all stilted in performances and delivery. Sarah, while she does have her moments of vulnerability, is quite mechanical. Dark comedies have worked in the past with an array of quirky and not-quite-there characters littering the cast, but this film, in particular, needed some sort of normal personality to anchor themselves onto, or perhaps looser performances. This also inhibits comedic delivery, and the tones of the film are muddied. But it ultimately wounds the film because science fiction is nothing if the audience cannot see the underlying humanity of the crafted world.
The script is not subtle, and the best-appreciated aspects of the film are in the subtext. But to discover them, you must first meticulously dissect the rest of the film. If the points are delivered clinically and are required to be examined with an almost indifferent precision to appreciate in their entirety, then the emotional beats simply will not land well. It’s unfortunate because the concept and execution are not lacking in themes, but they should come at a cost. The concept is intriguing, there is a lot available to work with, but the script does not assign appropriate weight to the questions it raises, and instead coasts on the inherent allure of the plot.
The pacing of the film is very good, and although it’s slow to get into things, it continually gains momentum through the runtime and does not drag. It makes good use of its runtime, and the third act of the film is definitely its strongest. But even at its end, one cannot help but feel unfulfilled, and not in a deliberate way.
There is an abundance of potential in Dual, from the concept, to the cast, to the vision fueling the entire project. There are bright moments and engaging scenes, but they come together in a mediocrely meaningful way. The skeleton of the film was there, but there was no meat on its bones. There is definitely an audience for this sort of film, who will enjoy and appreciate it for what it is, but I do imagine that there would have been an even greater audience if it was fully fleshed out thematically, as a science fiction film and as a dark comedy.