In the BBC America series Orphan Black, audiences got a little spoiled. Week after week, Tatiana Maslany would play lead character Sarah Manning and an assortment of clones. It was impressive on a technical level, working only because multiple versions of Maslany could be blended together to create the illusion of several people interacting with one other in a single shot. But it was even more impressive as pure performance, with the actor able to create differentiated characters with their own attitudes, mannerisms, facial tics, and body language — a feat that eventually won her an Emmy.
That’s the level of expectation facing Netflix’s latest movie, What Happened to Monday. A dystopian thriller set in the not-so-distant future, it features Noomi Rapace (Prometheus, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) playing seven identical sisters, each with different personality traits and attributes. It’s a credit to the film that, like Orphan Black before it, the visual effects are so seamless the audience will probably never even notice them. But it requires more than strong performances and great technological trickery to make a balancing act like this work, and while it starts strong, What Happened to Monday eventually falls victim to one of the most common movie foibles of all.
The year is 2073, and the world is in crisis. To combat overpopulation, scientists have created genetically-modified crops to provide more food — but that tinkering has, in turn, caused a drastic increase in the number of multiple births. In response, a politician named Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close) has created the “Child Allocation Act.” It restricts every family to no more than one child, and should any siblings or unwanted pregnancies come along, those children are put into cryo-freeze — a long-term, suspended animation, where they’ll be kept on ice until the world’s problems are sorted out.
That’s the environment the seven Settman sisters (Rapace) live in. In order to keep them safe, their grandfather Terrence (Willem Dafoe) named each of them after a day of the week, and forbade them from going outside on anything but their namesake day. Outdoors, they all adopt the shared personality of Karen Settman, a ruse that’s been working despite its obvious limitations. But one day, Monday doesn’t come back home for the nightly family meeting, and soon the sisters realize Cayman and the Child Allocation Bureau are onto them.
It’s a long-winded set-up, and thankfully What Happened to Monday manages to get most of the exposition out of the way with an early burst of voice-over. (One could argue that it is still needlessly complex — one crisis, leading to one fix, which leads to another crisis, which is essentially still the original crisis — but the film tucks it all out of the way efficiently enough.) Where the movie starts having fun is when it comes to Rapace’s performances, and early on she does a strong job of creating the different sisters. It’s not an easy task, either. Aside from costume changes and hairstyles, the script from Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson gives Rapace very little to actually work with. One is “the uptight sister”; another “the sexy sister”; yet another, the “angry rebel sister.” They’re so thin, they’re not even archetypes — they’re more like cartoon caricatures, set against a live-action backdrop. But Rapace is able to tease out the differences between them with mannerisms, small looks, and tiny flinches. It’s nothing at the level of Maslany’s work on Orphan Black, but it’s a supreme example of an actor elevating the material she’s been given.
The film itself is standard, pseudo-futuristic conspiratorial thriller terrain, and director Tommy Wirkola’s cinematic touchstones are obvious. A cryo-freeze commercial seen early in the film calls to mind the nod-and-wink of Paul Verhoeven social satires like RoboCop, while the persistent chatter of outside advertising inevitably recalls Blade Runner. Thankfully, the filmmaker doesn’t try to reproduce the aesthetic of either film. Instead, he opts for a muted, naturalistic look. It ends up feeling grim not because technology has overrun our basic humanity, but because the crises the world is facing have frozen much of the population in time, without any way to succeed or move forward.
Even the use of on-screen tech is muted. For a film set more than 50 years in the future, one would expect flying cars, drones, and massive computing enhancements. Instead, there’s little more than the transparent screen concept, apparently required since Minority Report came out, and clunky, metal wristbands that are used to track locations and ensure nobody is violating the Child Allocation Act. It doesn’t quite match the timeline, and one can’t help but wonder if some of the decisions were budget-motivated — but it all ends up selling the concept of a planet stuck in the past.
If only What Happened to Monday was able to build upon those trappings to tell a story that had some larger thematic resonance or intent. Once the cat-and-mouse between Cayman and the sisters kicks off, the movie quickly devolves into rote action mode. That would be one thing if it were an Atomic Blonde or John Wick; the kind of film that revels in simplistic genre tropes precisely so it can deliver a dose of pure adrenaline. But the closest Wirkola ever gets to that is having a character decide to awkwardly drink from a milk carton in the middle of a pivotal shouting match — just so the audience can see the clash of red on white when the character is shot.
What’s missing is a sense of soul and emotional investment. By the time the film winds up, it’s clear the creators are trying to hit upon themes of family and sacrifice — and some flashbacks between Dafoe and younger versions of the Settern sisters do set the stage for that kind of payoff. There’s also tremendous opportunity to explore ideas about identity, agency, and the difficulties of forging one’s own unique path in a world that demands conformity. But the thinly-written adult versions of Monday, Tuesday, and all the rest never offer any opportunity for that. It misses the mark to such a large degree that one final reveal — no doubt intended as the final ah-ha! that would make the whole story come together — landed so poorly I had to rewatch the scene to understand what the filmmakers were actually going for. (A win for Netflix over the traditional theatrical experience, I suppose.)
In the end, What Happened to Monday feels like a film created inside out, like someone had the idea of putting seven versions of the same actor in a single scene, and built from there. That’s certainly not to say a great film couldn’t have been made that way. The eccentricity of the creative process knows no bounds, and the most random of inspirations can lead to some of our most treasured works. But a great film requires more than just strong visual effects and a great performance. Or seven of them.