Movie Review: What Happened to Monday?

Noomi Rapace plays seven roles in a grim dystopian mystery thriller

What Happened to Monday?
(Seven Sisters / 7 životů)
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
With Noomi Rapace, Willem Dafoe, Glenn Close, Marwan Kenzari, Clara Read, Pål Sverre Hagen

When sci-fi is done well, it can be really though provoking. The English-language French-Italian film What Happened to Monday?, called Seven Sisters in some markets, builds on some current real issues to show a world not all that different from our own, but one that is nonetheless terrifying.

The film takes us to a dystopian future where global warming has caused a food crisis. To solve the problem, new crops that require high levels of chemicals were developed. The chemicals, though, had an unwanted side effect. They caused multiple births, which made the food crisis even worse. The government of what the film calls the European Federation institutes a one-child policy. We learn all this during the opening credits.

Actress Noomi Rapace plays seven roles as identical septuplets. Each named after days of the week. Their mother died in childbirth, and their grandfather Terrence Settman (played by Willem Dafoe) came up with the idea that they will share a single identity named Karen Settman and be allowed out of the apartment one day a week.

The film skips 30 years ahead, and the seven sisters have each grown up to have different personalities. The juggling act the seven sisters have been doing for decades starts to unravel, which becomes the driving force of the plot.

Several films have tried the trick of an actor or actress playing multiple characters. Recently James McAvoy tried to do a character with 23 different personalities in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, and it didn’t quite work. The list of films where actors play a good twin and an evil one, or now also clones, is too long to explore. but the results are quite mixed.

Noomi Rapace, who was in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, does better than most who have tried. The seven sisters each have unique styles and skills, one is good at IT, one does a lot of fitness training and so on.

Several scenes put all the sisters together around the dinner table or in their flat. The technical coordination to create a conversation with several versions of the character speaking at once must have been quite challenging. The result is convincing and realistic enough that it does not distract from the plot.

As the title suggests, there is a mystery to be solved. It isn’t that everyone forgot what happened on a particular day. The sister named Monday fails to return from work one day, putting the others in a panic. If she was caught, then all they are in danger.

The society in What Happened to Monday? is a bit draconian, but one that is familiar. People need to show electronic wristbands everywhere they go so they can be identified. Sales of food are registered using the same wristband. Armed guards are almost everywhere.

Not all of this is original. The 1973 film Soylent Green trod much of the same territory of a mystery set in an overpopulated world. The feel of the film, which is a European co-production, is closer to films like François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 or Michael Radford’s 1984 version of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

More recently the 2013 film Elysium as well as the Hunger Games took us to futures gone wrong but in a more splashy way.

What Happened to Monday? partly for budget reasons, shows a world much closer to our own reality, and that separates it a bit from the typical escapist sci-fi offerings.

The action is a bit more realistic as well. Police hit innocent bystanders when they shoot into a crowd. Bullets and other weapons create quite a bit of blood and large wounds, and death isn’t always instantaneous.

While CGI is used a lot, the film stays on track by being about its characters. It doesn’t chuck the story out the window to create a hurricane of computing effects in place of a final scene, which is a welcome change for sci-fi these days.

But the film is relentlessly downbeat. The filmmakers don’t sugarcoat the material or dumb it down, which makes it a bit of rarity these days. The amount of graphic violence that comes into play in the film’s second half is a bit surprising.

There are also several plot twists that most people can guess if they pay attention.

Noomi Rapace, as the seven sisters, steals the film hands down. Willem Dafoe has very little screen time, and mostly in flashbacks. Glenn Close turns up near the end as a right-wing politician, but again in just a handful of scenes, but they are crucial ones. Their fans might be disappointed by the brevity.

Along with the horror film Get Out, What Happened to Monday? is one of the better films aimed at an adult audience that uses entertainment to raise issues about society.

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