It all begins with a duel to the death between two “twins” who, as you find out, are actually the original person and a clone of the original. Stearns doesn’t do much world-building with the sci-fi concept, but you quickly buy into this world where if you are terminally ill, you can be cloned in order to spare your loved ones the pain of losing you. Sarah (Karen Gillian) learns one day that she is terminally ill and will die soon, and decides to get a clone of herself. However, by law you can’t outlive your clone, and if there is a possibility of that happening, you must fight to the death in a duel.
Gillian is a good fit for the part. She has spot-on comedic timing, and can pull off the monotone delivery of her lines, which makes differentiating between the real Sarah and her clone difficult. Both the human originals and their clones are vaguely robotic – the one thing that sets them apart is they have different eye colours.
Aaron Paul plays a fitness trainer who helps Sarah learn the skills that may help her in a combat situation. The sub-plot with the trainer is very reminiscent of Stearns’s second feature The Art of Self Defence (2019), and finds the director revisiting a similar character.
Due to complicated issues with finding a suitable filming location during Covid, Duel ended up being shot in Finland, despite being set in the US. The Scandinavian location gives the film a really uneasy feel It’s visually drab, a suitable backdrop to the sad future depicted.
Duel goes in an interesting direction regarding the pro and cons of cloning people. What makes the film funny as well as the ridiculous are the situations Sarah gets into as the clone gradually overtakes her life. For instance, her fiancée is far more into her clone than into her. Her meetings with her doctor are Kafkaesque.
In a way, Duel is an extended Twilight Zone episode, running at 90 minutes. It also reminded me a lot of Vivarium (Lorcan Finnegan, 2020), with its eerie future depictions. Thumbs down for the unsatisfactorily and vaguely ambiguous ending (a problem all of Stearn’s films have shared).
Dual has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.