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The concept of "the double," of doppelgängers, pushes up against the belief in our individuality and/or uniqueness. Riley Stearns' "Dual" is a "double" story, and while its flat affect tone and chilly visuals create a certain spooky interest, the film insists on avoiding the deeper psychological and even existential implications of its own tale, implications present in the narrative but somehow skipped over or ignored. Even with the excellent central performance by Karen Gillan, playing a "dual" role—herself and her own copy—"Dual" makes for a strangely tepid viewing experience. Deeper exploration is not on the table.
"Dual" takes place seemingly at the present time, but with one technological advancement: cloning yourself is not just a possibility but a reality. The glossy advertisements for the "replacement" process proclaim it as a loving thing to do: if you are going to die young, there will still be a "you" around, ready to take your place. Your loved ones won't need to grieve. The "replacements," as they are called, are generated from just a drop of spit, and they spend time with the "original" during the period of transition, getting familiar with the original's life, all the likes and dislikes, in preparation for the eventual takeover. The transition from original to replacement is supposed to be seamless.
But things don't play out that way with Sarah (Karen Gillan), suffering from a mysterious terminal illness. Sarah has a boyfriend named Peter (Beulah Koale), and a perpetually disapproving mother (Maija Paunio), the only two people who really "count" in her life. Sarah keeps her illness secret from both of them, and makes the decision to create a "replacement." Financial worries are brushed off by the sales rep: after Sarah's death, the "replacement" will be stuck with the bill. When the replacement strolls into the room, it's a perfect match except for one thing. The replacement has blue eyes whereas Sarah's eyes are brown. No problem, the replacement can wear colored contacts!
But the anomaly is a sign of things to come. Very quickly, Sarah's replacement shows signs of unnerving ambition. She's not just trying to replicate Sarah. She's setting herself up as better, in every way. She stares at a framed photograph of Sarah and Peter, and turns it face-down. She makes comments about Sarah's clothes not fitting her: she is a smaller size. She is better in bed, more adventurous. Sarah's mother prefers replacement Sarah to the real Sarah. So does Peter. Sarah finds herself squeezed out of her own life.
To "decommission" a replacement is a lengthy complicated process, ending in a public duel between the original and her replacement. Sarah decides to go this route and hires a combat trainer (Aaron Paul) to get her in fighting form to duel her own double. Then follows a series of training montages. This relationship is central to the film, and central to what "Dual" is interested in. These scenes are funny and specific: the two of them running through a slo-mo practice fight together, or doing some hip-hop dancing just to switch it up. These scenes have an entirely different feel from the rest of the film; they have energy and humor and unpredictability.
At every step of the way, when there's a potential to delve into questions around identity and anxiety, "Dual" side-steps. The "replacement" steals Peter from under Sarah's nose. Peter makes a horrendous speech about how Sarah has "let herself go," and how the other Sarah—the replacement Sarah—is better. Sarah races around trying to "get back into" her old life, but ... what was so great about that life? What's holding Sarah to that life? Anything? Gillan is completely believable in both roles—the frazzled emotional Sarah, and the pert smug replacement—and yet there's no sense of the dizzying weirdness of having a "you" running around out there. Does Sarah want to be like her replacement? Does the replacement feel envy of Sarah? "Dual" is not interested in these things.
It's instead interested in the plot-line of Sarah training to fight her double. There's a scene where Sarah and her replacement go to a weird support group—for people in similar situations—and the double apparently gets up and makes a huge speech about her feelings about Sarah and their "relationship." But we don't get to hear the speech. We just hear Sarah describe it afterwards. It's strange. The film holds us at a remove. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it creates a sense of distance without filling the space up with something else. For comparison, Sophia Takal's "Always Shine" is a fascinating exploration of doubling, where two women merge, lost in a boundary-less relationship filled with envy and self-projection, rage and desire. There's just not a lot going on in "Dual." The tension is drained out of the narrative, beyond the surface-level "who will win the duel?" scenario.
There's something unnerving about the idea that wandering around the earth is someone who looks exactly like you. Even creepier is the thought of your double infiltrating your life, taking it over. What recourse would you have? In Fyodor Dostoevsky's novella The Double, Golyadkin's double shows up one day out of nowhere in St. Petersburg. Similar to Sarah in "Dual," Golyadkin's double has the personal charm and social skills Golyadkin lacks. Frankly, everyone likes the double more than the original, and the double has an easy time taking over Golyadkin's life. This is such a shattering experience for Golyadkin he goes mad. "Dual" seems like it might want to go that way on occasion, but it shies away from a direct confrontation.
Now playing in theaters.