Noomi Rapace proved her action bonafides as the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but nothing in her badass career features the range on display in “What Happened to Monday” While Tommy Wirkola’s cheesy B-movie plays like outtakes from “Orphan Black” shot on leftover sets from “The Hunger Games,” Rapace throws herself into the zany challenge at hand. Simply put, she plays seven twin sisters in a dystopian society that finds them battling for survival against murky government forces; even as the movie sags into clichés, she remains its enticing centerpiece, shifting from one character to the next, often within the confines of an action-packed scene. She can’t save the movie from mediocrity, but the gimmick of her performance at least injects it with a recurring source of fascination.
“What Happened to Monday” poses its main question in the title, but the other days of the week are implicated as well. The seven siblings — named Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. — live in isolation, coping with a fascist society in which their very existence has been ruled illegal. Some three decades earlier, a resource-depleted world instituted a one-child-per-family policy. Additional children are detained by the ominous Child Allocation Bureau, an institution lorded over by the hokey mad scientist Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close, who seems to have taken a liking to this derivative trope after playing a similar character in last year’s “The Girl With All the Gifts”). Good samaritan Terrence (Willem Dafoe, glimpsed in flashbacks) takes the seven infants into hiding and raises them to each play the same person, Karen Settman, on different days of the week. Cut to modern times, when the women continue to endure young adulthood in seclusion, following a routine set up for them decades earlier.
They’re getting kind of sick of Karen. At the dinner table, the tensions are clear: Despite their physical similarities, the woman have developed jarringly different personalities, from the flirty Friday (emphasized by her ridiculous blond wig) to tough-minded Saturday and workaholic Monday. While Terrence has raised them to maintain the secrecy of their existence, the isolation has started to take a toll, and they’re eager for a reason to escape. The excuse arrives in rather unseemly fashion, when Monday goes missing, and gun-wielding troops hone in on the rest of the sisters as they’re forced to battle for their survival.
Watching Rapace bicker with herself at the dinner table holds a kind of goofy appeal on its own, but once their lives are endangered, Rapace really gets to enjoy the premise. Director Tommy Wirkola cuts frantically from one sister to the next, as they team up to take on multiple bad guys in grisly showdowns at one moment, and communicate by radio the next. Needless to say, their antics don’t always succeed, and as the body count rises the drama settles into a grim punchline: Which sister will eat it next?
There are some amusing asides built out of the sibling’s quest: One sister comes across Monday’s clueless love interest (Marwan Kenzari), and must feign awareness of their romance all the way to the bedroom, and a particularly gnarly flashback involving an injury finds the entire household committing to losing a finger so they can maintain their ruse.
That’s never enough to allow “What Happened to Monday” to transcend its self-serious tone, or the way it relies on sci-fi action tropes with the laziness of applying an Instagram filter. Wirkola stuffs it all in there to fill in the gaps between Rapace’s more enticing ability to develop chemistry with herself: characters watch action on a remote screen, barking orders to the person on the other side; expressionless, one-dimensional goons slowly pursue the protagonists at every turn; the boss villain holds back on taking action against her enemies to deliver devious monologues about her intensions. It’s unfortunate that a movie so clearly designed around the strength of one actor falls short of matching her range, but then again, Rapace’s stunt doesn’t go much further than anything Tatiana Maslany pulled off as multiple clones on “Orphan Black.”
The difference is that show features a complex mythology steeped in mystery revealed over the course many episodes. In “What Happened to Monday”, Rapace must sustain the gimmick under frantic circumstances stretched out across two hours, and the best thing going for the movie is an intriguing filmmaking challenge that finds her reacting to herself at a rapid-fire pace.
Wirkola, who’s best known for his two “Dead Snow” zombie movies, struggles to tackle a more serious-minded tone this time around. However, those earlier genre excursions generated much of their appeal around delightfully gruesome fight sequences, and “What Happened to Monday” resurrects some of that skill. Bullets, knives, and homemade bombs all figure into a series of bloody showdowns, none more enticing than a climactic battle between two of the sisters in a bathroom in which it’s impossible to tell who’s who. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. They’re both Noomi Rapace, and her commitment to this outrageous material is the only reason to stick with “What Happened to Monday” until that question finally gets its underwhelming answer.
“What Happened to Monday” premiered at the 2017 Locarno Film Festival. It is available on Netflix starting August 18.