Repo! The Genetic Opera
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
With: Alexa Vega, Anthony Head, Paul Sorvino, Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Bill
Moseley, Terrance Zdunich
Reviewed by Nathan Douglas
Repo! The Genetic Opera is a nightmarish stroll through the most naked, desperate desire for cult classic status that I have ever seen in a film. Whereas most films stand apart as themselves waiting to be loved or hated, Repo aggressively courts audience favor. It is seemingly incomplete without a court of rabid fans to play along.
The story is an inspired piece of anti-corporation sci-fi/horror satire, wrapped in an ingeniously developed futuristic world where one may purchase organ transplants to stay alive, financing the operations through payment programs offered by GeneCo, the monopolistic organ company. Everything is hunky-dory until you fall behind on your payments, at which point the Repo Man is sent to repossess the donated organ. Survival is not a necessary part of the repossession.
Against the canvas of this world (which plays like an even more deteriorated marriage of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles and the Matrix’s wastelands), is the more intimate tale of GeneCo’s terminally ill CEO Rotti Largo’s (Paul Sorvino) desperate search for a suitable heir, since his three grown brats are all thoroughly despicable and incompetent. He finds a suitable candidate in Shilo (Alexa Vega), the teenage daughter of GeneCo’s resident Repo Man (Anthony Head), who hides his day job from the girl. All of these proceedings are narrated by the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich), a neo-gothic peddler of dirty painkillers.
This is a rock opera, though you will believe me when I say that there is far more rocking going on than opera (not that the opera doesn’t show up). What we get is, by someone’s reckoning I’m sure, inspired, but not in the musical sense. I’m not terribly educated in music, but I found Repo’s musical arrangement to be dull and uninspired. When the film is a rock opera and relies heavily on its music, this does not bode well for the overall experience. Most of the score is “musical talking,” making it a cousin to well known works such as Sweeney Todd. What Repo lacks in this department, is any kind of arrangement that, while offering plot developments, is actually a pleasing listening experience.
The standout number, “Zydrate Anatomy” is the closest that Repo comes to a well-rounded song that does more than act as filler; it builds up interest and excitement and sustains that enthusiasm well past Paris Hilton’s singing entrance. It’s the best moment in the film, three minutes or so of sort-of-exuberant musical storytelling that doesn’t last nearly long enough, before slouching back into forgettable land. There is very little memorable material to be found.
While the music is anemic, the overall production is overwhelming. The film is deliberately under-lit, making the most of its grimy sets and seedy costumes, and even if the songs aren’t zesty enough, the actors give it their best. The low-key light set up effectively gives the film its own stylistic quirks, somewhere between Ridley Scott and a music video, though Darren Lynn Bousman’s affection for sepia tone gets tiring. Even as it dabbles in different looks — high grain for flashbacks, the aforementioned sepia tone for family-oriented scenes, hyper-noir contrast for its street scenes — there seems to be no unifying vision or purpose behind the contrasting styles. They are just additional features of this crazy picture, and we are supposed to love it for being so diverse in its dabbling.
Perhaps what’s frustrating is that there is a brilliant little cult film in here somewhere that wants to make biting remarks on social issues, but it’s buried in the rush to self-aware exhibition. Repo’s underlying commentary is worth discussing: in our corporation-dominated society, what essentials are controlled by companies? This satirical basis is left behind somewhere as the film piles on scene after scene of bloodletting and ghoulish humor.
The cast members dig into their respective roles with gusto; Sarah Brightman is particularly memorable as mournful songstress Blind Mag, while Paris Hilton impresses during her time as Rotti’s surgery-addicted daughter. Alexa Vega, exorcising the ghosts of Spy Kids, carries much of the film with her key performance as Shilo. Anthony Head balances madness and tenderness as the Repo Man, and makes the most of his rocking numbers.
The plot developments seem more and more arbitrary as the film goes on. Characters die, well, because it’s an opera and that sort of thing happens in these kinds of stories. Nothing terribly compelling emerges from the narrative, beyond the “corporations are bad” theme that we already knew from the first five minutes.
In the end, the whole experience is akin to having a particularly long, weird, grimy dream. The confident combination of sleaze, gore, harsh lighting, and shadow left my pupils wanting Zhang Yimou therapy. It works well for what it is, but that doesn’t make it easy on the eyes.
This is a very specific work for a very specific audience. As it turns out, I’m not a member. It’s an interesting experience, one that neither compels one to fall in love with the material nor walk out on it. I sense a lot of potential in it, but the desire to achieve shock-cult status amongst genre fans drowns out any attempts to be more clever or relevant. I value the experience for what it is, but if they end up making a couple more of these I doubt I’ll find myself lining up for seconds.
Content: Lots of graphic bloody violence, especially the kind that involves torsos being sliced open and organs removed. Some sexual content includes a woman flashing her breasts and people writhing suggestively around each other in various states of undress. A smattering of f-words and there’s a song dedicated to explaining how a nasty street drug works.