Sundance Review: Karen Gillan Faces Herself in Riley Stearns’ Deadpan Dual

Riley Stearns' third feature is a deadpan sci-fi showcase for Karen Gillan

Dual Review Karen Gillan

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The Pitch: Sarah (Karen Gillan) is dying of a rare, incurable disease. It’s no big shakes, though, because up to now she hasn’t really lived: she has a strained, distant relationship with her boyfriend (Beulah Koale), her mother is disapproving, and she can’t even be bothered to cry when she receives her prognosis. Still, she unthinkingly accepts an offer to go through the process of “replacement”: growing a clone of her that will learn the ins and outs of her life, then take over when she dies.

But ten months of watching her double (also Gillan, obviously) insinuate herself into her life, Sarah learns that she’s making a full recovery. But she’s got two problems: a) her boyfriend and family like the double more than they like her, and b) the government won’t allow two versions of the same person to live. So, per the letter of the law, they’re set to duel to the death one year hence.

The Art of Self-Defense: Riley Stearns‘ oddball sensibilities have stood out since his acerbic 2019 dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense; there’s always something off about the worlds he creates, from the monotone cadence of his characters to the strangely analog worlds they inhabit. In Dual, Stearns takes another jaundiced look at a lost character seeking self-actualization through the holy crucible of combat. But this time, rather than poking at the scabs of toxic masculinity, he turns his eye to the very notion of finding a sense of purpose in life in the first place.

The results are deliciously off-kilter, even if the sci-fi world Stearns has created is somewhat clumsily reverse-engineered to make his central premise possible. (If replacement is so easy and commonplace, wouldn’t the Earth’s population just explode with clones after a while?)

Still, that just contributes to the stilted, sometimes alien worlds Stearns creates for his characters. Despite theoretically being set in a future where cloning is simple as pie, aesthetics remain old-fashioned: Gillan’s phone has an MS-DOS-like interface, and a hilariously po-faced training video feels ripped right out of a ’90s VHS. If Napoleon Dynamite were less cutesy and more murder-y, it might look a little like Dual.


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