Film is a fickle artform sometimes. Every once in a while, no matter how good an idea is, or how earnest the intent, the final product just doesn’t work. Even when you look at all the individual elements, there are those rare moments when it all falls flat for one reason or another. And workability itself is a fine distinction. It’s one I learned to make when I was in college, taking my classes on screenwriting. There’s a difference between a bad idea and a good one, and then on a completely different spectrum, there are ideas that either work or don’t regardless of quality.
I’ll give you an example from the past few years. The Emoji Movie was a bad idea. It was creatively bankrupt from first pitch, a cynical attempt to capitalize on youth and digital culture and shoehorn in a bunch of product placement, even though the lengthy process of animation meant that almost all of the references would be dated by the time the movie was released. There was no earthly reason why it should have even been green-lit, and just about every person capable of common sense recognizes that.
On the other hand, a film like Eighth Grade has a lot of good ideas at play, but from my standpoint, it didn’t work. As before and now, I concede that a likely significant part of that is because I’m not the target audience, but setting that aside, I can still see the moments that could have been improved with a few tweaks here and there, to the point that I would have enjoyed it despite not being in that particular demographic sphere. I’ve made my peace with that. I recognize the quality, the flaws, and the middling areas where it could have been adjusted to make it more entertaining for my benefit, but even where it doesn’t work, I can see the value in the attempt.
I got that feeling a lot while watching the latest from Riley Stearns, Dual. There are some riveting concepts in this satire, many of which could have been extraordinary with some fine tuning, and really there’s only one truly weak element of the overall project. However, that weakness makes the other shortcomings all the more glaring, resulting in a film that, while an ambitious, good idea, just doesn’t work.
The plot centers on a woman named Sarah, played by the absolutely wonderful Karen Gillan, one of my favorite modern actresses. She’s given a terminal diagnosis by her doctor (Sanna-June Hyde), who recommends the option of “Replacement,” a procedure where she is cloned so that her “double” can take over her life once she dies, presumably as a “gift” to her loved ones so that they won’t feel her loss.
If this conceit sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The idea of creating duplicates or carrying on a consciousness past death is a trope as old as science fiction itself. Hell, Benjamin Cleary made a very similar film last year, Swan Song, starring Mahershala Ali (not to be confused with Todd Stephens’ gorgeous film of the same name starring Udo Kier in a role for the ages). But just because an idea has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. You just have to find a different angle with the script, have compelling performances, or any number of other variables working in your favor. Sadly, Stearns never quite finds that focus.
Not much is known about Sarah when the film starts. She’s dating a man named Peter (Beulah Koale), who is away for business, but it’s clear their relationship is strained, as he finds just about any reason to end her calls quickly. Sarah’s nameless mother (Maija Paunio) is apparently quite judgmental towards her (evidenced by a nightmare where Sarah eats pennies to make herself sick), but mostly just calls multiple times a day to Sarah’s annoyance, and she often ignores the contact. Beyond that, all we know are superficial details delivered through clunky exposition. She likes Mexican food over French, takes hip hop dance classes, and prefers rock and pop to country music. That’s not really a personality.
Now, to an extent, I get the point of this. Sarah is as much a clean slate as her eventual clone, who is meant to imprint on Sarah and learn the details of her life before taking over postmortem. It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice it fizzles because we in the audience have nothing to latch onto, no reason to root for or against either version of Sarah. This frustration is further compounded by time jumps in the story that substitute for development of character and plot. Once Sarah’s double is introduced (Sarah undergoes the procedure without Peter or her mother’s knowledge), we get one sequence of them interacting before we jump forward 10 months and see that Peter is now dating the double and Sarah’s mother has a much more affectionate relationship with the clone than we’re meant to believe she had with the original. Rather than tell us — or more importantly, show us — how the double insinuated herself into an alpha position in Sarah’s life, we’re just thrust into a moment where that is the status quo, and we’re expected to accept it without question.
At this point, Sarah learns that her extremely rare, terminal illness (for which the doctor said there’s a 98% chance of death with a 2% margin of error, so literally no chance for survival) is completely in remission, and that she will be able to live a rich, full life. Unfortunately, her double has existed too long to simply be “de-commissioned,” and therefore invokes her right to “stay” through a duel to the death, with the winner being the legally recognized Sarah going forward. The film itself opens with such a contest between two possible “Roberts” (played by Theo James), to show us how that works. Given a year to prepare, Sarah begins combat training with a man called Trent (Aaron Paul), in hopes of surviving.
Now, the training scenes are a lot of fun, and Gillan and Paul play off each other quite well. This is honestly one of the real highlights of the film, but it also demonstrates the structural problem. Sarah has a one year deadline for this blood sport, but we only spend about 10 minutes on the training. Even when the goalposts are moved through arbitrary means for the sake of an “act of God” joke, there’s no real payoff for their extended time together, other than a brief interlude that subverts a tired cliché.
Really, the entire script is a mess, as it lacks direction and a solid target, much like Don’t Look Up. But adding onto the pile is Stearns using intentionally stilted dialogue throughout, much like he did in his previous film, The Art of Self-Defense. The big difference here is that there’s no larger comedic purpose for this style of line delivery. In that last film, the scheme worked because of the juxtaposition of the dialogue with the scene and characters. In Self-Defense, Jesse Eisenberg is reading lines that you would think would be emotionally charged, allowing for humor when he delivers them so matter-of-factly. In other movies that use a similar tactic, like The Lobster, it works because it’s an illustration of the absurd rigidity of Colin Farrell’s situation.
Here though, there’s no real point to it. There’s a glimmer of subtext about cloning and sport killing as a dehumanizing process, but there’s no real humanity established about Sarah to start with, as she’s saying these lines with the exact same deadpan both before and after her double is created. And the clone talks the exact same way. The only indication we get that there’s any difference between them is Peter telling Sarah that her double says the first half of his name with a cheerier, upward inflection, but we never actually see it. The monotone delivery only succeeds if there’s a reason for it, and here it just feels like Stearns forgot how to direct actors.
This faulty screenplay results in a lot of other minor faults being heightened, resulting in an even less enjoyable experience. The film was shot in Finland, and as such, almost everyone outside our three leads speaks with a Finnish accent with no explanation. We also have blatantly European signage and road markings all over the place, even though the movie takes place in America. It’s just shoddy presentation. It’s noted when the clone is created that there was a “glitch,” and that the double has blue eyes while Sarah has brown, except the scene is so poorly lit that we literally cannot see the eye colors, so why bother, other than to set up a line for the intentionally ambiguous finale?
Because of these issues, suspension of disbelief becomes exceedingly difficult, which ties back in with the overall problems with the story. In this version of the near future, cloning is not only a readily-available technology, but one that can literally be done in an hour and with little to no consent from the next of kin, for whom said clone is being made. There’s also no consideration for the feelings of the family, who would presumably be horrified at the prospect of seeing a living lie in their lives rather than healthily mourning their loved one. It’s also extremely convenient that this totally terminal illness that Sarah miraculously survives has no name, because it doesn’t actually exist. And in what may be the silliest bit of tripe we’re meant to swallow, there is now a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants legal standing to these clones and allows them to challenge their progenitor to a FIGHT TO THE DEATH! So, no Equal Rights Amendment, no codified rights for existing people, but somehow 2/3 of both houses of Congress and 35 states ratified human cloning and Hunger Games-style televised murder? The fuck out of here!
And again, who are we satirizing here? At some points it feels like we’re lampooning the medical industry, as Sarah’s doctor seemingly cares more about avoiding a malpractice suit than helping her patient. At other times the movie plays like an indictment of America’s penchant for violence, illustrated by a Troma-esque movie-within-the-movie called You Always Kill the Ones You Love. Still elsewhere the film acts as corporate satire, with a rather darkly funny sales video about the “Replacement” process. And even further than that, there are shades of problematic anti-choice messaging in the form of declaring personhood rights for the clone that supersede those of Sarah. In fact, Sarah’s one moment of emotionality is to declare that she’s going to “ABORT” the double. It’s murky at best and troubling at worst.
This all might have been worth it if the film — and the script — had anything truly clever to say. But apart from some all too brief distractions that induce light chuckles, notably all of them coming from incorporated media rather than the film itself, it just all feels like a dirge, with almost no payoff for the investment of time, to say nothing of the abundance of snide comments about Gillan’s appearance that just come off as mean rather than ironic. I get what Stearns was going for here. At least, I think I do, and on a surface level, there’s a good idea here. But just because an idea is good doesn’t mean it works. This is one such case.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you ever want to be cloned? Seriously, who in this world thinks Karen Gillan isn’t gorgeous? Let me know!