‘What Happened to Monday’: Film Review | Locarno 2017

Courtesy of Netflix
The star is up for the challenge, but the high concept quickly unravels.

Noomi Rapace toplines a sci-fi thriller in seven roles, playing siblings targeted by a government ruthlessly enforcing its one-child policy.

Tommy Wirkola, who brought us Nazi zombies and turned Hansel and Gretel into witch hunters, casts his speculative gaze toward near-future dystopia in What Happened to Monday, a thriller that pits a septet of illegal siblings against an authoritarian regime. The intriguingly bonkers premise rests somewhat soundly on matters of climate change, overpopulation and genetic engineering, but its most burning question is “Are seven Noomi Rapaces better than one?” To which the answer is a resounding “Sure, why not?” 

The movie, which will follow its Locarno premiere with an Aug. 18 launch on Netflix before rolling out theatrically in Europe and Asia, starts off promisingly. But Dead Snow helmer Wirkola, working from a screenplay credited to Max Botkin and Kerry Williamson, soon tosses aside any topical musings — or musings of any kind — in favor of relentless action, brutal violence and iffy melodrama, the final scenes’ intended jolt to the solar plexus barely registering. 

Rapace plays a superhero team of sorts, without the superpowers — 30-year-old sisters living double lives in an unidentified metropolis of the European Federation. The Child Allocation Bureau, headed by a garden-variety toxic bureaucrat (Glenn Close), enforces the one-child policy by sweeping up siblings wherever it finds them and putting them in the deep freeze of suspended animation, presumably until the planet’s climate, food and population crises have subsided. Then again, “cryosleep” might just be double-speak for euthanasia. 

The seven sibs, named for the days of the week by the grandfather (Willem Dafoe) who raised them, have survived the clampdown by sharing a public persona. Each woman goes out in the world as Karen Settman on the day of the week that coincides with her name. Back in their sprawling bunker of an apartment, they revert to their real personalities, sharing takeout meals of roasted rat as a break from the usual GMO fare. 

Though the material defines some of the women more clearly than others, Rapace clearly relishes the chance to dig into multiple roles. Differentiated by hairstyle and attitude, the sisters include martini-sipping platinum blonde Saturday, plain-Jane tech whiz Friday, and rebellious Thursday. Wirkola, DP Jose David Montero and VFX supervisor Bryan Jones combine the performances within the frame in strikingly seamless fashion — not just for Rapace but also for Clara Read, who plays the tween version of the sisters in flashback scenes that show precisely what kind of sacrifices their ruse requires. 

The strain of maintaining a collective memory — “I thought I told you that,” their genial doorman (Tomiwa Edun) points out to Sunday — and the women’s varied responses to the constricted nature of their communal existence would be rich ground for further exploration. But after Monday doesn’t return home at the end of her appointed day, the story gives way to a chase flick. Out come the knives, saws, steam irons and guns as Rapace, in her various guises, goes mano a mano a mano a mano (etc.) with Bureau henchman Joe (Christian Rubeck) and his SWAT team. 

As she's shown in a number of performances, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rapace brings a feral yet elegant athleticism to action, a quality that Wirkola knows how to showcase as his star races through the city, with its requisite dystopian rain. Less convincing than the running is the Karens’ detective work, and what it uncovers, as they try to sort out the allegiances of a leering colleague (Pal Sverre Hagen) and the man (Marwan Kenzari) who claims to be the secret lover of one of the sisters. By the time a contract surfaces involving Close’s grand manipulator, it’s best to kiss goodbye any hope of narrative coherence. 

Shot in and around Bucharest, Romania, with effective production design by Joseph Hodges, the film achieves an evocative, if basic, blend of Old World, crumbling and gloomy, and sharp-edged high tech. There are the usual holographic touchscreens, familiar by now from countless sci-fi movies, while digital displays in the palms of citizens’ hands show that the meld between human and machine is underway. An image of fallout from an explosion is haunted by memories of 9/11, and there are troubling glimpses of the dispossessed in the Lower Sector — all of it, finally, passing scenery to the main, pummeling action. 

As to the unnamed city’s pan-Euro vibe, it’s a good fit for an international cast led by the Swedish-Spanish Rapace. Given her characters’ sequestered upbringing by a man who sounds like Willem Dafoe, it doesn’t quite explain her Scandi-accented English. But that’s the least of the movie’s gaps in logic.

Production companies: SND, Vendome Pictures, Raffaella Productions, Nexus, Umedia
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Willem Dafoe, Glenn Close, Marwan Kenzari, Christian Rubeck, Pal Sverre Hagen, Tomiwa Edun, Cassie Clare, Cameron Jack, Clara Read
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Screenwriters: Max Botkin, Kerry Williamson
Producers: Raffaella De Laurentiis, Fabrice Gianfermi, Philippe Rousselet
Executive producers: Thierry Desmichelle, Guy Stodel
Director of photography: Jose David Montero
Production designer: Joseph Hodges
Costume designer: Oana Paunescu
Editor: Martin Stoltz
Composer: Christian Wibe
Visual effects supervisor: Bryan Jones
Casting director: Gillian Hawser

124 minutes