Turns out, it is easier to create a human clone than it is to destroy one. Or so goes writer-director Riley Stearns’ morbidly satirical, grimly absurd parallel version of the world as we know it. In “Dual,” for those who have themselves copied, then change their minds for whatever reason, just one course of action exists: The original and his or her clone must face off in a televised death match. Whichever party survives the duel can now carry on as the one and only, unique version of the dittoed individual.
If this sounds like a high-concept premise — or maybe just an elaborate excuse to deliver a high-concept pun — you don’t know the half of it. Stearns, whose demented 2019 comedy “The Art of Self Defense” doubled as a critique of modern masculinity, isn’t particularly interested in taking the idea in the adrenaline-rush direction audiences might expect. Nor should “Dual” be mistaken for another “Swan Song,” the polite recent weepie in which Mahershala Ali plays a terminally ill husband who has himself cloned so that his wife might carry on without him.
“Dual” offers neither the genre-movie thrills nor the button-pushing catharsis of a conventional popcorn flick, but then, that’s what makes Stearns such an original storyteller. After a suitably intense opening scene, in which a dude (“Divergent” actor/action figure Theo James) duels … a remarkably similar-looking dude (also James) on a floodlit football field, audiences might reasonably expect an even more exciting showdown between Sarah (Karen Gillan) and Sarah’s Double (also Gillan). Instead, Stearns serves up a slow-burn existential fable in which this woman, who seems to lead a pretty lousy life to begin with, realizes it might actually be worth fighting for.
Devoid of sentimentality as “Dual” approaches such matters, said epiphany hardly feels predictable. For starters, Sarah’s a slob, watching porn on her laptop when her absentee boyfriend (Beulah Koale) FaceTimes her from a who-knows-where hotel room. He sounds half-distracted, but then, Sarah only half-cares. She’s even less enthused to hear from her mom, whose pesky calls she lets go to voicemail.
And then Sarah wakes up one morning with her sheets soaked in blood. She goes to the hospital and learns that she has an incurable stomach disease. The doctor drops this two-ton anvil of bad news on Sarah in an ambivalent tone, explaining that she has a 0% chance of recovery. Sarah absorbs her diagnosis with a poker face, which might seem odd until one realizes that’s Stearns’ style for nearly all the performances: flat, almost robotically numb, artificially stilted in the director’s austere, stripped-down version of reality. It’s like an episode of “Black Mirror” as Robert Bresson might have imagined it.
Because Sarah’s not a completely horrible person — more like an average amount of horrible — she decides to go the “replacement” route. Per Stearns’ science-fictional premise, she opts to have a clone made so that her mother and partner won’t be so hard-hit by her death. Replacement is a relatively easy outpatient procedure, albeit a ludicrously expensive one (conveniently enough, her clone will assume the debt once she’s gone). But something glitches behind the scenes, and dull-eyed Sarah’s double comes out with bright blue peepers and an independent streak. She doesn’t seem particularly inclined to step into Sarah’s shoes.
The way the process is intended to work, Sarah is supposed to spend her remaining time alive “imprinting” on her clone — a period during which this made-to-order duplicate can learn how to become (or at least mimic) the person she’s replacing. But Sarah’s Double isn’t a double so much as a new-and-improved version of her original: She’s Sarah minus the love handles and hate-the-world attitude. She asks questions about Sarah’s favorite clothes, cuisine, sexual position and so on, but doesn’t hesitate to override those choices. She is, somewhat inconveniently, her own woman.
And then (the next point is a spoiler, without which the duel wouldn’t be necessary), Sarah gets the news that her disease has gone into remission. She won’t be dying. Which means this double, who has so brazenly stolen her boyfriend and invaded her life, won’t be necessary. “I’m going to fucking abort you!” she screams — no way to talk to anyone, much less oneself. Thus threatened, her double challenges Sarah to a duel, for which they both have one year to prepare. Sarah hires a personal combat trainer named Trent (Aaron Paul), who teaches her, well, the art of self defense. Sort of. To test her newly honed killer instincts, Trent orders her to shoot his dog, but she can’t bring herself to do it.
As opposite-of-funny as much of this sounds, “Dual” is in fact a fairly astute comedy. The laughs come not from jokes so much as sharp jabs of truth — wince-inducing insights into the subjects most movies won’t touch, like our fear of death, intimacy and being forgotten. For a stretch, Sarah and her clone seem to realize they actually have quite a bit in common, which makes sense. But one of them still has to die. And Stearns keeps the surprises coming, as “Dual” skillfully operates on (at least) two levels: There’s the superficial thriller plot, which points toward a knock-down, drag-out finale, and there’s the more identity-centric subtext, which delivers a different kind of punch entirely.