Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2017

What Happened to Monday

Seven days for seven sisters

On inexplicable familiarity, disingenuous dystopias, and the dubious lack of identity in What Happened to Monday

What Happened to Monday
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Screenplay: Kerry Williamson and Max Botkin
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Noomi Rapace, Noomi Rapace, Noomi Rapace, Noomi Rapace, Noomi Rapace, Noomi Rapace, Marwan Kenzari, Clara Read, Christian Rubeck, Willem Dafoe and Glenn Close
Not rated / 2 hours, 3 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)

See enough movies and you start to remember places you've never been, recognize obscure locations and geographical details ingrained from years of subconscious exposure. And not just the major landmarks that everyone knows already. You see the same diners, the same piers; the same balconies and the same green-screened city backgrounds behind them.

The same can be said for Glossy Dystopian Metropolis, one of those ubiquitously generic veneers used over and over in movies that have a clear-cut genre but no clear-cut ideas. Less a setting and more an elaborate Snapchat filter applied by directors to give their bad sci-fi entries some degree of superficial credibility, Glossy Dystopian Metropolis is far too instantly recognizable for something that has no intrinsic personality. The lingering sensation when watching a movie with this specific backdrop - and there are many - is ... Wait, haven't I been here before?

Netflix, dead set on programming to every conceivable template, has officially checked this one off the list. The dystopian What Happened to Monday exemplifies the very problem with the subgenre's overpopularity. Time and place are always vital, but anytime or anywhere with a real, documented history doesn't necessarily need anything more than cursory justification. Those times and places are, or were once, populated by real people and societies and political structures. Those stories are already there to be told. But inventing a threatening future is a statement in and of itself. That setting - even more than the prisms of other imagined genre settings - is too inescapably rooted in metaphor and message to ever be incidental. But, being as common as it is these days, dystopia is too often a monotonous crutch. Is this particular future necessary, or is it just easy?

That's a perplexing question for What Happened to Monday; by appearances, it's every bit as hollowly affectational as so many of its dystopian contemporaries. The production design is little more than an elaborate Scary Oppressive Future Alert. (Its production values, including extensive special-effects work, are strong - this isn't some cheapo effort or anything - but the vision or purpose behind it isn't there.) And yet what's unmistakable is that the narrative does have overt allegorical intent. Muddled as the film's messaging ultimately may be, Kerry Williamson and Max Botkin's script clearly has something in mind, and that something clearly calls to be framed in front of an authoritarian future. It's the execution - both in Tommy Wirkola's direction and in the wobbly balance between ideas and plotting - that makes the film seem like any other assembly-line dystopian thriller. Sincere intent gets buried beneath too many obvious creative choices.

The bureaucratic control over life and choice wielded by all authoritarian sci-fi regimes here takes the form of population control, with the powers that be in some vague mid-21st Century European* megalopolis instituting a strict one-child policy to quell the country's (and planet's) overpopulation crisis. Any younger siblings are required to be turned in (or will otherwise be captured) and put into cryogenic freezing until, the party line goes, some ambiguous future time when the world is capable of providing for them. Despite being built upon the enforcement of such a strict government policy, the film can easily be read as an anti-abortion allegory. It still possesses (almost inescapably) a heavy skepticism toward government's ability to take responsibility over life; but its sense of regret trends more toward the destruction of life - the taking of it - even, in one scene, by cordial health professionals in a bright, serene, antiseptic medical facility. One startlingly unsubtle image late in the film is straight out of the pro-life protest playbook. One character's big angry defense of the future's one-child policy conspicuously echoes familiar discourse on that subject - and is strangely on the nose about it.

* I don't believe the film ever specifies an exact location, but it was shot in Romania - heavily modified by the production design - and features an English-speaking cast primarily made up various European distinctions, I assume by design. A couple of American heavyweight character actors round out the cast for good measure.

A more comprehensive reading suggests larger concerns about governments' responsibility to their citizens and to their overall economic or social health - matters complicated, in What Happened to Monday, by a world whose overpopulation (which seems to be more rooted in a dearth of food and resources, Interstellar-like, than in too many babies - the result is the same but the different reasoning, in regard to what the proposed "solution" would be, is key) has led to immigration and welfare crises. At its best, the film shrewdly offers mini-commentaries about leaders' willingness to regulate life and death, birth and choice, and unwillingness to invest in those lives once they're actually part of the population. In all honesty, I can't tell if the film is guilty of undercutting its message(s), or if it's simply not concerned with one particular message or another and instead intends to cover a wide variety of thematically linked ideas. Whatever the case, so much of Monday is weighted toward its tepid action and cat-and-mouse sequences - at times it almost plays like The Fugitive set in the middle of Children of Men, except not nearly as awesome as that sounds - that it can't help but feel ideologically shortchanged.

What it all comes down to is, Willem Dafoe has a bit of a problem. His estranged daughter had the misfortune of giving birth to septuplets right in the middle of this whole one-child decree. Almost as if she did it on purpose, like a giant middle finger to the Child Allocation Bureau. She dies in childbirth, leaving all seven daughters in Willem Dafoe's hands. He's apparently independently wealthy - at least, enough to afford to raise and feed seven children, by himself, in an apartment he equips with secret rooms and passageways. He names them each after a day of the week, and sets up a system to guarantee their survival. Inside their apartment walls, they can be themselves, each with her own distinct personality, fashion sense, hairstyle. They can leave the apartment - but only on their designated day of the week. Every day, each daughter fills her sisters in on everything she learned and experienced. They, collectively, are Karen Settman, who makes a comfortable living in her job at an international bank. Each day, she returns home, to that same apartment, to a life with her six identical siblings. The seven of them hold strong to the things that make them individuals, but it's not exactly easy to keep secrets from each other.

Until, that is, Monday doesn't come home one night, and the rest of them are left to unravel whatever it is she's been keeping from them.

The life - and the secret life - the film has constructed for Karen Settman (Noomi Rapace) is one of its major impediments, primarily because of the way the narrative details flimsily prop up sociopolitical concerns that may have otherwise borne much more fruit. The corporate rival, the on-the-sly boyfriend, the encroaching government operatives ... it almost seems custom-built to find the least amusing, least witty way to tell a story about seven identical sisters living one cumulative life. There is a stultifying lack of ability to maneuver these seven characters within the story, or play around with identity - which the very premise practically screams for - in any substantial way. Seems to me that a movie about secret identical septuplets shouldn't be this blandly straightforward. Isn't this very circumstance, like, a clear asset that the film - and its characters - should be using to its/their advantage?

The best we get is an early scene - when the girls are about 10 or so - when one of them sneaks out to go skateboarding when it's not her day to leave the house. She gets in an accident, in the process shredding the tip of her index finger so that it's barely hanging on, and ultimately unsalvageable. The result? Now Granddad has to cut off the same tip of the same finger on all six of his other granddaughters. Their absolute codependence on one another is a lesson they have to learn the hard way.

Unfortunately, that lesson is just about the only fun the filmmakers have with their premise. And look, while Willem Dafoe cutting off the fingers of six children would be the highlight of a lot of movies, in What Happened to Monday it plays like a cruel hint of the better, cleverer, more twisted movie this might have been.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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