Netflix’s ‘What Happened to Monday’ Squanders a Fantastic Premise

Maggie Shen King is the author of An Excess Male, a science fiction novel that explores the future consequences of China’s one-child policy. The policy was enacted in 1979 in an attempt to curb overpopulation, and even though the country started to phase it out two years ago it led to a huge shortage of potential wives due to so many parents choosing to have sons instead of daughters.

“It sounds like dystopian fiction, but in actuality China was the one nation that had the political system and the wherewithal to enforce the policy,” King says in Episode 279 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And 40 years of this is very, very scary to think about.”

Overpopulation has been a popular theme in science fiction for decades, from the movie Soylent Green, based on the Harry Harrison novel Make Room! Make Room! to the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon.” And just this summer Netflix released What Happened to Monday, a dystopian sci-fi movie about a set of septuplets that must escape a population-controlling government. Author Carrie Vaughn was interested to see a new take on the theme, but was disappointed that the movie doesn’t really explore any big ideas.

“It’s not actually dealing with the issue,” she says. “It’s just using it as an excuse to do all these very typical action movie things.”

What Happened to Monday is set in a future in which a one-child policy is strictly enforced. In order to skirt the law, the septuplets (all played by Noomi Rapace) pretend to be one person, with each of them venturing outside only one day a week. It’s a promising setup that unfortunately never pays off.

“A lot of the script was so intelligent, and then so much of the rest of it was so dumb, I was wondering if there were different, competing people or powers fighting over what it should be,” says Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley.

Science fiction editor John Joseph Adams had high hopes for What Happened to Monday, but says that in the end it just didn’t measure up to stronger sci-fi films like Gattaca. “The movie kept reminding me of Gattaca, but it’s like it didn’t learn anything from Gattaca,” he says. “It’s like they saw Gattaca and they really liked it, and they wanted to make a movie like that, but they didn’t really learn why it was good.”

Listen to our complete interview with John Joseph Adams, Maggie Shen King, and Carrie Vaughn in Episode 279 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Maggie Shen King on An Excess Male:

“When I started writing the book, [China] had not started pulling back on the one-child policy, so I was operating under the assumption that this was going to keep going on, and so I had a society where the government has appealed to its families to show patriotism by taking on additional husbands. If you think about the whole thing like a mathematical equation, to balance that equation you can either bring in more women—foreign wives—or you can export some men, or you could ask the women to take on additional husbands, and I thought that third way of solving the problem was the most provocative and interesting.”

Carrie Vaughn on her new novel Bannerless:

“The society awards banners, which is where the title comes from. When a household is granted permission to have a child, they’re awarded a banner, and it’s very much a badge of honor. When children are born outside of this structure, when they don’t have permission to have a child and that child is born anyway, they’re ‘bannerless,’ and it’s a mark [against them]—they’re still taken care of, but the household is punished, they’re usually broken up, the parents are sent away, and that mark stays with them in the way that shame culture works—once a household has done something wrong, once someone has that mark on them, it’s really hard to get away from.”

David Barr Kirtley on The Population Bomb:

“There was a book in the ’60s by Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb, which really kickstarted a lot of the concern about overpopulation. His projections were basically that there was going to be mass starvation because the population was rising so much faster than the food production capacity. But then I think what happened was that there was the invention of ammonium nitrate fertilizers, which tripled—or whatever—the capacity to produce food. So a lot of people look at that and say, ‘We should never be concerned about this because there will always be some technological solution.’ And that kind of thinking makes me really nervous. I mean, I hope there’s always a technological solution, but given that we only have one planet and one human civilization, I would like to strike a little bit more of a balance between prudence and optimism.”

John Joseph Adams on Soylent Green:

“The entire movie’s about a cop who’s trying to figure out why this rich guy died, and it turns out that he discovered the secret of what Soylent Green is. … I don’t know if I’m just a monster or something, but I was like, ‘Is it really that bad though?’ Sure, people should know that Soylent Green is people—I mean, spoiler warning, it’s like 30 years old. People should be aware that Soylent Green is people, but is it really that big a deal? When resources are so scarce and overpopulation’s such an issue, and you just need to feed people? It doesn’t seem that bad.”
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