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January 23, 2009

Repo! The Genetic Opera

2008, Dir. by Darren Lynn Bousman

Repo! The Genetic Opera is not the kind of midnight movie I generally seek out. Since The Rocky Horror Picture Show and (my personal favorite) Phantom of the Paradise rocked theaters in the mid '70s; there have been several entries in the midnight musical genre, but few that captured madness and inventiveness as those two films. Despite my preconceptions, Repo! managed to remind me fondly of those films, and put its own stamp on the midnight musical genre.

The Plot
Set in the always evolving "not-too-distant" future, our film opens with a comic book style rehash of the near fall of civilization due to genetic organ failures, and the savior that came to the world, Rotti Largo, founder of GeneCo - the company responsible for legal organ transplants. It also introduces us to the person who comes into play when those receiving organs don't pay up on time, the Repo Man. If you don't know how one would reposess an organ, this is the time when I should tell you that the director's first three films were Saw sequels. That should help you get the picture.

Rotti (played with surprising grace by Goodfellas' Paul Sorvino) is dying, and has to choose an heir to the throne from among his three children. The oldest, Luigi (The Devils Rejects' Bill Moseley), is a foul mouth with a violent temper. The youngest, Pavi (someone named Ogre from a band called Skinny Puppy that I've never heard of) steals the faces of others to hide his own disfiguration, and the last, Amber Sweet (played by....Paris Hilton...don't run away...please!), is addicted to cosmetic surgeries and the street drug Zydrate, which is an anesthetic for surgical pain relief (that is also extracted from the dead).

Across town we meet Shilo Wallace (Alexa Vega) a seventeen year old girl plagued by "a blood disease" and her single father Nathan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Anthony Stewart Head)...who has hidden the secret that he is GeneCo's top Repo Man from his daughter all his life. Through flashbacks, it's revealed that Shilo's mother, who died during childbirth, was involved with both Rotti and Nathan, and now the dying "savior" wants to reconnect with Shilo and let her in on the truths of their twisted society.

The Good
When the film says it's an opera, it really is an opera. There are few breaks in the musical action, and every cast member takes part in the act. More impressive, they do so with great enthusiasm. Vega and Head are especially effective in the daughter/father scenes, especially as the film closes in on the finale; and they throw themselves into the musical numbers with little hesitation. Sorvino and Hilton get in some good licks, but the latter is primarily carried by the musicians of the cast. The biggest assets in the cast, however, are Sarah Brightman and Terrance Zdunich.

Brightman is most known for her on-stage work, including originating the Christine Daae role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera (Brightman and Webber were married briefly, as well). Here she plays Blind Mag - the star of GeneCo's top entertainment event, the titular Genetic Opera. She's also involved in the past of Nathan, Rotti, and Shilo; and provides a crucial turn in the plot in her few scenes. She gets the film's most operatic musical number, and provides a foil to the corrupt family dynamics of the film.

Zdunich plays a more tertiary role as well, as the Graverobber who supplies Zydrate to addicts and serves as an overseer of the film's developments. He's crucial in educating Shilo to the dangers around her, and carries Hilton through one of the film's best scenes. Oh, and he also co-created the original play and co-wrote the film with Darren Smith (who gets onscreen to kickoff the opera festivities in the final act.)

The cast as a whole is largely responsible for the film's success, but a lot of credit must also go to Darren Lynn Bousman. I mentioned that his previous work was in the torture porn of the Saw series, and it's more than surprising to view how well he puts this film together on such a limited budget. He creates a lot of world for a film with so few resources (although the film seems a little staged at times), which keeps the film feeling like the sci-fi/horror epic that the money didn't allow.

The Bad
I spent a lot of time on the things I liked about the movie, but it's still a hard sell. As with all midnight movies, quality is relative, and the film has its fair share of questionable choices. It's definitely a movie that will hook some from the start and lose others immediately. It's an incredibly dark and violent film at times, and an almost Shakespearean tale at others. To say it's not a movie for the masses is an understatement.

I found Moseley to be the only member of the cast whose performance didn't fit the movie. And, outside of a few early scenes involving Vega and Head, I was caught up in the characters enough to forgive some of the more dramatic/overdone acting, which will not be easy for all viewers. Hilton's performance, which I found myself surprisingly not angered by, is one I could easily see drawing the ire of some viewers, as many of her scenes are among the film's silliest. Realistically, if someone isn't going in expecting a full-blast rock opera, they're going to probably have trouble dealing with the acting.

Also, it is easy to look at the film's world and draw parallels to other sci-fi films. In its ideas, Repo is not the most original film. I felt like the execution of these ideas, and especially the effort put into presenting them in a new manner made up for this, but it might fall on the other side of that line for others.

And, of course, the music is key. If you don't like it, you won't like the film...because it really is all music. Here's a snippet via a YouTube video for your perusal.

Random Moments
  • I haven't talked about it too much, but there is a LOT of blood spilled and organs removed in this movie. Just making sure to mention that.
  • Watch out for the creepy 3-D portraits of Shilo's deceased mother in their home. They're a little much.
  • The opening of the final Opera features some truly random nudity.
  • If you want to see Paris Hilton horribly disfigured, this is a good place to start.
  • According to many reports I've read, there are upwards of 50 songs in the 97 minute film.
The Verdict
When I started this site and stated my principles, I mentioned that I, among other things, was looking for "films that dare to take us places that most people never really care to think about". Repo! The Genetic Opera does so with vigor, which is the most I can ever ask of a midnight movie. I don't know if it will catch on and gain any kind of cult status like the films I mentioned at the beginning of my review (though there sadly isn't enough of a Phantom of the Paradise cult), but the fact that it got me this interested in its world is a surprising victory. I won't be surprised to see many others falling under the Repo Man's spell, leading them to respect this inventive and tragic rock opera.

The Mike's Rating: Legends Series


Anonymous said...

I'm starting to REALLY want to see this, Mike, even though I hate the "Saw" series that Darren Lynn Bousman is famous for.

The Mike said...

I'm in the same boat, too. Maybe they needed musical numbers?

Anonymous said...

I went in expecting to hate this, because usually I don't like musicals. 30 minutes in, I knew I was watching something truly special. But in a good kind of way. The musical numbers rock and aside from the rather weak final act its chock full of sweet moments. Like a creepy pale grave robbing bastard singing about surgery. Heh. I gave this film a strong 86/100.

Madame Enfer said...

I really wanted to like this movie, but I felt it was a real case of untapped/misdirected potential. The plot, tone, a lot of the visuals and character concepts were fantastic, and the plot/universe really hooked me in early. Rocky Horror and Phantom of the Paradise are favourites of mine, which was why I was interested to see this. Unfortunately, most of the cast and musical numbers left me cold. Terrance and Sarah were great, but Alexa Vega grated on me to no end and Stewart Head left me cold and without empathy. It's really disappointing to me, because there is lot to like about this film. Zydrate Anatomy was a standout scene.