Side Effects, the new film from Steven Soderbergh that’s now in theaters, is a twisty thriller, more gris than noir, in which almost every character is taking mood-adjusting prescription drugs. Beta blockers, Adderall, Paxil, Effexor, Celexa, Zoloft, Wellbutrin—in the film, these real-world drugs are casually discussed at cocktail parties and liberally dispensed by doctors for pre-interview jitters, anxiety, the blues, you name it. (Another recent release, Silver Linings Playbook, also features a memorable conversation about name-brand meds. Is this the dawn of Cinema Pharma?)
The pivotal pill in Side Effects, however, is an invented one. “Ablixa” (generic name “alipazone”) is introduced as an antidepressant with an upbeat slogan—“Take Back Tomorrow”—and some worrisome side effects that include confusion, suicidal thoughts, and sleepwalking (and also, as it turns out, sleep-table-setting, sleep-loud-music-playing, and sleep-vegetable-slicing).
To say anything more about the plot would spoil the pleasures of this grim yet exhilarating movie, so I’ll stick to the Ablixa story, which contains some surprises of its own.
Exquisite care is taken in the movie to depict Ablixa as a real product. Pentagram, one of the most influential design firms in the world, was hired to create a complete visual identity for the drug: logo, packaging, product video, swag (pens, mugs, umbrellas), and a fake website where you can undergo an online “evaluation” by “Dr. Jonathan Banks, M.D.” the psychiatrist played in the movie by Jude Law.
The “Ablixa” name is a clever coinage, combining a suggestion of Abilify (a real drug for bipolar disorder) with the obligatory pharmaceutical X so frequently seen in antidepressant names. The doubled A, front and back, gives the name an open, say-aahhh quality and suggests “from beginning to end” or “circle of life.” The generic name also sounds eerily legit. Abilify’s generic name is aripiprazole; generic Desyrel (an antidepressant) is trazodone.
The “Take Back Tomorrow” slogan is also well chosen. Not only does it invoke the generic reassurances of antidepressant marketing. but it also points to a sneaky secondary meaning for one of the characters (no spoilers!), who in the end is indeed given a chance to regain control of the future.
I contacted Emily Oberman, the Pentagram partner in charge of the Ablixa project—she designed the logo and narrates the Ablixa commercial—to find out whether her firm also worked on the name and slogan. She told me no: they were created by the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, who’s a friend of Oberman’s. (Pentagram’s New York office stands in as the agency where “Emily,” played by Rooney Mara, works; “Emily” sits at Emily Oberman’s actual desk. Her boss is played by Polly Draper, familiar to many of us as Ellyn in “Thirtysomething.”)
Pentagram developed a thorough case study for the Ablixa project. Here’s an excerpt:
Because of the important role it plays in the story, Ablixa had to look like a convincing pharmaceutical product with a vaguely sinister undertone. The designers created branding that is a compendium of many of the clichés that define the product category. …
Oberman and her team imagined a history for the Ablixa brand and wanted to introduce a human element to the identity, so people could relate to how it made them feel. Having never designed a pharmaceutical logo before, the team did research into what makes a successful logo for an anti-depressant and found that some representation of the human form and symbol or sign of improvement or safety was often combined with typography that hinted at strength and a speedy recovery.
The resulting identity conveys the sense of overwrought optimism that we’ve come to expect from multinational corporations that are trying too hard. The logo is set in an aggressive, customized Futura Bold Italic, paired with a happy humanoid figure with a sunburst “crown” that illustrates the feeling of security and newfound joy that surrounds the patient. The shape of the pill is used to create the sunburst around the figure, and this feel-good “halo” also appears around patients in the TV commercial.
Around the time of the film’s release the design blog Brand New, which covers logos and visual identities, published a deadpan critique of the Ablixa project. (A snippet: “I would expect more from Pentagram, specially if they are taking on big pharma projects like this.”) Only at the end was the identity’s true identity revealed—and even then, some readers clearly didn’t get it. “In Brazil, as Portugal, and many othe Portuguese speaking countries, this product will be a flop,” wrote one offended reader. “ ‘LIXA’ is ‘garbage’ or ‘garbage cam’. tHE PRODUCT IS PURE GARBAGE! Nobody took the time for a disaster check befora advancing the project.” (Sic, sic, and sic.)
I wouldn’t be surprised if the “garbage” meaning was part of the joke.
One savvy commenter, however, pointed out a “super geeky” detail that betrays Ablixa’s fictional status:
As a designer moonlighting as a pharmacy technician, my first tip-off was that the NDC [National Drug Code] was incorrect. … The last sequence of digits has to be 1 or 2 digits; this one has 3.
I confess that I missed the NDC completely.
Most viewers, I suspect, will agree with New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott, who wrote that the Ablixa commercial embedded in Side Effects “is a perfect parody of something that has become very familiar in recent years: a vague and seductive montage of sad and happy scenes accompanied by new-agey music and, interrupting the inspiring sales pitch, a sotto voce recitation of warnings and possible complications.”
But I wouldn’t call Side Effects a “caper movie,” as the Times headline puts it. More like a reverse-Gaslight. Go see it.