Another sci-fi at Sundance that uses its trappings thematically rather than visually, Riley Stearns’ high-concept black comedy Dual asks how far someone will go to remain in a world with which they’re only tangentially engaged to start with. An interesting premise offers the potentially for a sharp existential enquiry, but is too wedded to its style at the expense of depth. The intentional flatness, and arid, deadpan humour ensure some mileage early on, but narratively is revealed to be something of an empty shell.

When Sarah (Karen Gillan) is diagnosed with a terminal stomach disease she decides to have herself cloned. The idea is to spend her remaining time imprinting as much of her personality on her replica as possible so boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) and her mother (Maija Paunio) can carry on with the minimum grief. A small glitch ensures that Sarah’s Double appears with different coloured eyes, is a dress size smaller, and has ‘shinier hair and better skin’. Both Peter and Sarah’s mother take to this slightly less dolorous version straight away, effectively pushing the real Sarah. The situation is complicated further when it’s revealed Sarah is in complete remission 10 months later. The law states that the clone has enough identity that it can’t simply be decommissioned. The only solution is for the two Sarahs to dual to the death for the right to live in the eyes of the law.

Karen Gillan has had success in roles that are if not explicitly mechanical like Nebula in the Marvel universe, are characterised by a certain emotional numbness, as in Gunpowder Milkshake or The Party’s Just Beginning. She’s therefore pretty ideal to be both Sarah’s here, easily slipping into a closed-off vacancy that characterises humans Sarah even more than it does her double. Operating on less familiar terrain is Aaron Paul who appears in the second act as Trent, the combat expert who trains Sarah for her deathmatch. Their interactions are the film’s clear highlight, where the pair’s walled-up stoicism hits the comic sweet spot exemplified in two scenes where Trent takes Sarah to an autopsy to desensitise her to violence, and a snow motion hypothetical dance of death as they choose various weapons and how they would use them. Sadly, Trent then vanishes from the story and it misses him badly as Gillan and Paul are that one pairing that clicks (what it says that Gillan and Gillan don’t…).

To be fair to Stearns, he remains consistent to his vision here, and has made it hard for himself. It is difficult to find emotional points of connection in the mode of presentation he has chosen.  The obvious debt is to Yorgos Lanthimos, who made his name with such stunted and stilted, but outrageous films like Dogtooth and The Lobster. What works in those films is the distance Lanthimos is willing to go in juxtaposing story and style. Dogtooth is a harrowing tale of abuse and sexual taboos that is all the more disturbing for its detachment. Dual is perhaps too familiar a sci-fi tale – you can point to similar themes in Black Mirror, Marjorie Prime, Humans, and After Yang within the last decade alone – for this approach to be wholly successful. You can of course point to the inherent irony of the actors’ robotic presentation in a film examining what it means to be human as being the joke. It just isn’t one that sustains the whole film.

Screening as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022