[‘DUAL’ Review]: Riley Stearns and the Art of Clone-ing Around


Travis Leamons // Film Critic


Rated R, 95 Minutes
Director: Riley Stearns
Starring: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, and Theo James

Cold, acerbic, and detached. Any one of these words could describe the work of writer-director Riley Stearns. A low-key satirist, Stearns’ comedies are an acquired taste. Unlike the more boisterous Adam McKay, Stearns steers toward a more unconventional path when he explores cults and mind control (FAULTS) and hypermasculinity (THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE).

His third feature DUAL follows the pattern, presenting a scenario where a woman’s listless life gets a wake-up call in the form of an incurable illness with an extremely low chance of survival. For Sarah (Karen Gillan), this would mean saying her goodbyes and making funeral arrangements for her inevitable passing – until she’s offered an alternative: cloning. In the near future, cloning is an expensive procedure to help ease the suffering of loved ones. However, once the imprinting process begins and the clone starts to mirror Sarah’s life, her illness goes into remission. Because there are rules as to the stage in imprinting when clones can be removed from service, Sarah must now take part in a court-mandated duel to the death with her double to see which version is allowed to live.

Stearns doesn’t set out to present an emotional journey of a woman making the most of her second chance at life. DUAL is a satirical exploration of mortality told with cold and dry precision that is about as disconnected as a portable phone without wi-fi.

Karen Gillan stars as Sarah in DUAL.
© 2022 RLJE Films. All Rights Reserved

The comedy is a drab affair with characters acting stilted and speaking in monotone. That’s not a mark against it because this is Stearns’ style of comedy, after all. His approach is off-putting for the casual viewer. Making movies on subjects that interest him foremost without taking major audience reaction into account won’t win him a lot of fans, but getting recognizable faces to star just might.

Having played kick-ass heroines and cyborgs as part of the JUMANJI franchise and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Karen Gillan and DUAL seems like a mismatch. Sarah is far removed from her most recognizable characters. And playing a listless, frumpy woman and her more hyper-expressive clone is no easy task. Gillan balances the two Sarahs and gives each niceties where it’s not just the original and a Xeroxed copy.

She dominates the comedy, but Gillan also gets help from Aaron Paul, who plays the combat trainer Sarah hires to help murder her double. For those who remember Paul from the BREAKING BAD series as the inattentive chemistry student turned meth dealer Jesse Pinkman and how wound-up he could be at times, in DUAL, he is purposefully detached as the instructor Trent. But he absolutely kills the role as he guides Sarah in aerobic conditioning, hand-to-hand combat, and weapons. Their scenes together are played to great effect and give Sarah a purpose-driven life.

Whether or not audiences will like the satire depends on how attuned they are to Stearns’ style of comedy and his ability to not have his story fly straight. DUAL could have easily played off its opening scene where two men – revealed to be an original and his clone – fight to the death on a football field as onlookers watch from the stands. Stearns refrains from leaning into the battle premise and goes with a less engaging scenario of how a woman destined for death gets renewed energy that makes her less miserable.

Viewers willing to take in the awkwardness DUAL offers will find a cloning satire about mortality with happiness and sadness duking it out for supremacy. By the time it’s all over, you’ll be thinking about misery and how there are no winners or losers.

Grade: B

Watch Our Interview with Writer-Director Riley Stearns ⬇️

Watch the Official ‘DUAL’ Trailer ⬇️