Some of that’s owed to the fact that I gravitate more toward films that make me think about a subject. I don’t always have to agree with what a storyteller presents (it naturally makes accepting any messaging a bit easier), but a well-conceived and well-presented narrative makes me less likely to push back against anything I might culturally or even politically disagree with. While good characters are a requirement, I’ve always been more of a story person: even bad characters can make a good story palatable, though the opposite is rarely true. So giving me something to both visually and intellectually mull over makes for a viewing experience I’ll appreciate more than most, and these are the films I’m far more apt to be talking about as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser.
Thankfully, some of Science Fiction’s best flicks lean in this direction.
Though 1982’s Blade Runner was delivered with lush visuals, it was centrally a tale about life and how we live it, making it a vastly more perceptive commentary on the human experience than, say, 2004’s I, Robot. Similarly, 2014’s Ex Machina tread a lot of ground similar to 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence; but the Steven Spielberg film required a wealth of bloated special effects sequences that were aesthetically unimportant and even unnecessary by comparison to the Alex Garland thesis on the dangers of pushing technology into areas perhaps we shouldn’t explore (much less exploit). Sometimes less is more, and some auteurs benefit by sticking with simplicity of ideas over excess of substance.
Riley Stearns’ Dual flirts with ideas that have long found footing in the realm of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Though at first blush it might be considered a treatise on the dangers of cloning, it ends up being more about the psychology of human beings than anything else. It rather deftly reminds viewers that flawed minds typically make flawed decisions, so perhaps any activity extending from a broken psyche will inevitably suffer the same fate, no matter how hard we work to avoid it.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“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.”
That synopsis unabashedly tapes into Dual’s main theme, that being: “If you’ve never truly lived your best life, then how can and will you defend it if the time comes?”
As Sarah and Sarah’s Double (both played with dour conviction), Karen Gillan achieves the task of creating two similar portraits though each with mild variations on the theme of loneliness. Sarah spends her quiet evenings away from her boyfriend choosing to watch porn and – ahem – self-gratify while her clone willfully embraces said boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) … and yet neither find true happiness because they both suffer from the same inescapable inability to connect on any emotional level beyond themselves. While the shocking diagnosis briefly wakes the original young woman from her clueless slumber, it isn’t until she’s in remission that she uncovers a passion to last beyond a single moment … only now she’s forced into a dual to the death with what her family and friends have chosen as a better version of herself.
Alas, writer/director Stearns’ script only puts Sarah through the motions of training for the fight of her life more out of the legal obligation than anything else. Undeniably, she has nothing to fight for, much less take a stand against, other than the terms of a contractual obligation – so must I ask can there be any lonelier sentiment than a binding agreement? Though she finds a bit of a life worth living in the budding platonic relationship with her combat trainer Trent (Aaron Paul), their friendship never rises to the level of being pivotal to her existence; most of his advice ends up being delivered for comic intent (his services are all she can afford, after all), putting the bulk of this film squarely in the territory of comedy more than anything else. He opens her eyes – albeit briefly – but he never touches her mind or her heart, only cementing the unavoidable gloom of Sarah’s truest self.
Nothing in here produces any lasting joy; and, listening to Stearns comments in the brief ‘making of’ short, it’s very clear that’s what he intended. Sarah’s increasing isolation cannot escape even death – the ultimate quarantine if there ever were – so all that remains are a bit of laughs at her and her expense to fill this 90-minute exercise. That’s not a complaint, mind you: it’s just an honest realization that … well … maybe this thing called “life” isn’t meant for everyone … and perhaps there are those out there who choose to run the gamut of existence on autopilot rather than ever risk immortality, even for a few, futile seconds.
If even you pause to consider oneself for a flickering moment, then that may be enough to detect a sad parallel to Sarah’s days in order to prevent a similar fate befalling yourself or someone you know. That’s what intriguing stories do – they serve as catalysts for awakening – and I’d put Stearns’ entry as one of the better genre attempts of the last few years. Without a lot of flash, the film could break through the usual noise and wake viewers up a bit. It might not be earth-shattering … but it could be to many on a personal level … if it touches them in a relatable way.
Don’t be a Sarah. You might not like what you find.
Dual (2022) was produced by XYZ Films, Film Service Finland Oy, Metrol Technology, and a few other participants. (A complete list is available on IMDB.com, if you’re interested.) DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the reliable RLJE Films. As for the technical specifications? Again, I’m no video expert, but I found the sights and sounds to be of very high quality. As for the special features? There’s an obligatory ‘making of’ short (about ten minutes) that’s really more of a bloated advertisement for the film than anything else along with a commentary from writer/director Stearns … and dare I point out that his name is misspelled on all of the packaging materials? Ouch. That’s gotta leave a mark!
The best satire makes you laugh while commenting on the wider world outside, and Dual certainly fits both of those requirements. Also, it’s safe to say that the best Science Fiction always dabbles more with the human condition than it does anything else, so Dual definitely hones in on just the right artistic sensibility as well. Still, there’s a surprising emptiness to the whole affair – all of it likely by construction from Stearns and company – that might not sit well with everyone who discovers this trusty little gem. Though it rather casually reminds us to seek out and explore only the very best version of ourselves, its emotional core also reminds those watching closely that we still may not like what we find when we reach that destination. Good work by Gillan and Paul in keeping what could’ve been a complex, cerebral affair relatively simple.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at RLJE Films provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Dual (2022) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.