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Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: Seven Sisters (2017)

* * 1/2

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Glenn Close

Seven Sisters, which is also called What Happened to Monday? and might as well have been called "Orphan Black, but less good," is a high-concept science fiction film that takes about an hour to get beyond its concept. The second hour is pretty solidly entertaining as a thriller (albeit one that ends rather softly), but the first can be a bit frustrating, full of unnecessary exposition (the whole film contains unnecessary exposition, but the bulk of it is concentrated in the first half) and overly enamored with the idea of having star Noomi Rapace interact with herself to the power of 7 so that some scenes feel less like they're servicing a story and more like they exist as acting and technical exercises. Sure, it's an impressive feat, but less talk and more action would go a long way.

In the year 2043, the world is at a crisis point. Food shortages have led to a reliance on genetically modified crops, which has in turn resulted in a spike in multiple births and catastrophic overpopulation. In an effort to address this problem, the Child Allocation Bureau is created and works to enforce a strict one-child policy. At the time the policy is put into place, septuplets are born to a woman who dies in the process of giving birth and their grandfather (Willem Dafoe) decides to raise them in hiding so that the government cannot lay claim to the six "extra" babies. Over the course of 30 years, the seven women share the public identity of "Karen Settman," each of them playing the role one day per week while spending the other six inside their apartment, but when one goes missing during the course of her day, it threatens to expose them all to the C.A.B. and its ruthless leader, Nicolette Cayman (Glenn Close). As the remaining six unravel the mystery of what's happened to their sister, they also find themselves at war with the government.

Overall, Seven Sisters gives the impression of coming from a screenplay that has been overly tinkered with. Some of that tinkering would have come from transforming the story from being about seven brothers (as it was originally) to seven sisters, but those alterations are actually pretty seamless in the final product. Having seen it before learning that the characters were originally supposed to be men, I have a hard time imagining the film not being about seven women. This is because of the way that the plot is actually moved forward by the fact that "Karen Settman" is a woman, vulnerable in ways that men tend not to be and engaging with the world in a fashion that is rooted in that vulnerability, so that particular tinkering becomes one of the film's strengths from a narrative perspective.

The greatest weakness of the film is that it feels like a lot of effort went into dumbing things down as much as possible, draft by draft. Seven Sisters is a film that over-explains itself as if concerned that the audience won't be able to follow it even though it's not particularly difficult to understand. For example, when the seven sisters are born, their grandfather explains to the doctor who delivered them that he's going to name each one after a day of the week. Yet, even though that actually makes it pretty clear what his plan is for raising them, the film still feels the need to have an expository scene where the grandfather sits down with the girls at age 5/6 to explain to them that each will be allowed to go out into the world on the day that corresponds with their name. As another example, part of the film's premise is that the C.A.B. will take into custody any extra children that families are found to be harboring and put those children into "cryosleep" until such a time as the world's population has diminished to more reasonable levels and then the children will be re-awakened. This being a dystopian movie, I think we all know what actually happens to those children and late in the movie there's a scene that shows what cryosleep actually means which confirms those suspicions. Nevertheless, despite literally just showing us what it means, the film follows it up with a scene in which two characters explain to each other what it means. The amount of hand-holding that Seven Sisters does goes beyond making the story accessible to just flat out assuming that the audience is kinda stupid.

That hand-holding extends to the characterization of each of the sisters. Despite each having a distinct "look" that they adhere to in the privacy of their apartment, which one assumes is to help the audience distinguish between them since only 3 of them get to have actual personalities, the film constantly feels the need to shoehorn their names into the dialogue, even when two of them are in a one-on-one conversation with each other (as in one will say to the other "[day of the week] we have to..."). It's clunky to the point of distraction, particularly since, as I said, only 3 stand out while the rest just seem like variations on one generic personality. Having said that, while having characters who are indistinct from each other would usually be a negative, Seven Sisters actually finds a way to turn that into a positive by cycling its protagonists through as many action movie death tropes as it can. There's the surprise mid-action (like, literally, in the middle of an action) sequence death, the self-sacrificing death for the good of another, the drawn out death in which the character acknowledges that they're about to die, and the death where the character turns away from their assailant and towards the camera and then gets shot in the back of the head. The process of seeing how many different ways it can have Rapace enact a death scene is probably the closest that the film gets to having any fun with itself.

Seven Sisters isn't great science fiction. Its premise is interesting, albeit flawed in execution, and its look is pretty cookie cutter as far as movie dystopias. It does manage to give a decent enough sense of the over-crowding, packing street scenes with people, though as with so many of its other elements, it has no confidence in expressing that through the visuals alone and has to throw in some dialogue to draw direct attention to it. As an action movie Seven Sisters has a bit more success, since once it gets to that point it has mostly relaxed into itself enough to stop pausing to explain things and just rush forward, which it does with plenty of bone-crunching violence. In the end, it entertains, even if in a fashion that won't necessarily translate to repeat viewings.

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