The movie Dual is a dark comedy clone drama starring Karen Gillan

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(3 stars)

Writer-director Riley Stearns (“The Art of Self-Defense”) sci-fi drama Dual is set in a near-future that looks a lot like the present when a dog is murdered.

Did I mention it’s a comedy?

Karen Gillan (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) plays Sarah, a young woman who is diagnosed with a rare, terminal disease that gives her only a 2 percent chance of survival. Even before this medical setback, her life wasn’t great: with her boyfriend Peter (Beulah Koale) on a remote work assignment, she spent her time alone watching porn and drinking generic alcohol from bottles labeled “whisky” and “IPA.”

When a doctor tells Sarah that she will die in a few months, her response is not so surprising: “Why am I not crying?

Sarah gets – in a way – a “substitute” the chance to continue. The procedure is expensive but simple: spit into a test tube, and an hour later your clone will appear, ready to be coached in the details of your life “so your loved ones don’t have to suffer the loss of you.”

“Here’s a brochure,” says Sarah’s doctor.

“Dual” is a terrible cautionary tale, but it plays with dark humor. The macabre storytelling (and the heavily accented English of most of the mostly Finnish supporting cast) is reminiscent of the stilted dialogue and storylines of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”). But Sterns’ tone is drier, funnier – and ultimately warmer.

Sarah performs the procedure, but there’s a catch — or two. Her boyfriend and mother like Sarah’s clone (also played by Gillan) more than Sarah. In addition, Sarah goes into remission. In such a case, if both the “original” and the cloned double want to stay alive, it is mandatory that they face each other in a televised duel to the death. Unprepared to fight for her life, Sarah hires fight trainer Trent (Aaron Paul) to help train her for the decisive fight.

The premise suggests a cross between Todd Haynes’ 1995 psychological drama Safe – about a housewife (Julianne Moore) who suffers from a mysterious illness – and the Hunger Games franchise.

What sets “Dual” apart is its whimsical gallows humor. This approach is not for everyone; It takes a certain sensitivity to enjoy yourself in a gory (and hilarious) workout video titled You Always Kill the Ones You Love. But Sterns has a playful side, too, and enrolls Sarah in a silly hip-hop dance class to while away the time before their fateful duel.

The supporting actors are all in tune with the film’s peculiar rhythms. But in her dual roles, Gillan makes the film her own, playing a split self with cunning restraint. At first, Sarah’s stand-in is a little livelier than herself, but Sarah comes into her own as she learns to defend herself, and in a particularly complicated final act, it becomes harder to tell who is the original and who is the clone.

Like Blade Runner, a more ambitious sci-fi film that calls its humanoid creations Replicators, Dual asks at its core what it means to be human. But Gillan’s startling performance raises a more disturbing question. When Sarah tells her double, “I like all kinds of music, especially pop, rock, and hip-hop,” she shows no emotion or enthusiasm, merely providing a practiced repetition of facts. Is she just as programmable as her clone?

Cinematographer Michael Ragen first bathes much of “Dual” in a palette of cold, clinical light. But the deeper Sarah gets into training and gains confidence, the warmer her surroundings become, suggesting she’s becoming more alive. (The look of these scenes is reminiscent of director Bernardo Bertolucci’s insistence that the reds, oranges, and skin tones of “Last Tango in Paris” appear “uterin.”) “Dual” takes a while to get going and ends with an unresolved note. But it’s a fun and provocative struggle for the meaning of life.

R In the theaters of the area; available on May 20th upon request. Contains violence, some sexual material, strong language and graphic nudity. 94 minutes.

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