This year’s Sundance Film Festival features quite the eclectic lineup of titles. Dual, written and directed by Riley Stearns, was one of my most anticipated movies going into the festival, and it absolutely does not disappoint. The consistently fantastic Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy, Oculus) plays two roles with a committed fervor. A harrowing sci-fi thriller, Dual imagines a new world not unlike our own, where having your own clone to take over life once it is about to end is totally commonplace.
Sarah (Gillan) finds out the news no one ever wants to hear: her death is imminent, thanks to a terminal diagnosis. Her world is suddenly thrown into flux, forced to essentially make her very own funeral arrangements. Sarah turns to Replacement, “a gift for your loved ones.” This company makes doubles of the subject, who then act as sponges to soak up everything about their original before their death occurs, untimely or not. The more time they spend learning about you, the more they will become you. This seems like a perfect fit for Sarah. She schedules a consultation without needing to think twice about it.
Sarah meets her double very simply and easily. They will go by the same name, and she will take Sarah’s place when the time comes. Sarah tries her best to fill in her remake with her favorite foods, sexual positions, life aspirations, and personality traits. Immediately, the vibe between the two is a little strange. The double, who had first complimented Sarah’s shirt, later seems less impressed with the wardrobe she is destined to inherit. Perhaps with the formalities out of the way, Sarah #2 has started to develop a mind of her own. Gillan fills each of these identical roles with separate character traits, and fittingly monotone vocal ticks.
Ten months later, and things have not exactly gone according to plan. Sarah’s double (who also happens to be the ideal version of Sarah, with prettier eyes, “no cellulite,” and “no love handles”) has infiltrated her life. Sarah’s hardworking boyfriend, Peter, and her widowed mother have both come to terms with accepting this second version of Sarah. She discovers that she is not only in remission, but also recovered completely. She will not be dying, not today, but what of her double? Decommissioning Sarah #2 out of her life may be easier said than done, especially when a court-ordered duel to the death is imminent…
In this way, the title Dual is weirdly (and no doubt purposefully) double-edged. Not only do we get dual people, but the word’s other pronunciation, ‘duel,’ is a key facet in the storyline. Duals Dueling to the Death would be an apt alternate title, in fact. Filmmaker Riley Stearns steadfastly diverts focus from this devolving into some big Hunger Games style face-off, despite a cinematic opening starring crossbow-wielding Divergent actor Theo James battling his clone. Dual never pretends to revel in bombastic action beyond this attention-grabbing opener. The film is constantly toying with audience expectations; taking a darker, sinister road as opposed to what we may expect was welcomed with open arms.
Dual is filled with creative ideas. A support group for doubles and people that have killed them pops up at one point, and Aaron Paul enters to train Sarah’s mind and body so she can face off against Sarah #2. While his presence in the endgame feels slight, Paul is an important presence for Sarah’s physical and mental wellbeing. I think Dual is constantly having a dialogue with the audience in between its toe-tips into sci-fi—would you be okay with training a Replacement of your very own? There are no easy answers, yet Dual commands the viewer to look inwardly, and ask the hard questions.
Demanding a Replacement, Dual debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.