In a dystopian future, organ failure has become an epidemic. Fortunately, the GeneCo Corporation and its CEO Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) have devised a solution. They will loan out new organs to those in need. However, if the customer happens to be late on a payment then GeneCo sends out the Repo Man. This hooded figure will track you down and surgically remove GeneCo’s property, and perhaps they’ll harvest the rest of you too. People become obsessed with surgery upgrades (just think what wonders a third kidney could do for you). Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) is a famous opera singer that signed a contract for new corneas. She’s now reconsidering retiring from the stage, no matter what that means. There’s also a powerful pain killer known as Zydrate that can be extracted from fresh corpses. Anyone caught robbing graves will be shot on sight.
One repo man, Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), is working to keep his daughter safe. Shilo (Alexa Vega) has a rare blood disease she inherited from her mother, who died in childbirth. Nathan must keep her locked away in order for her to survive. His daughter must never know his true identity as a repo man. Rotti is informed that he is dying from inoperable cancer. His trio of bratty, homicidally crazy children (Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, Nivek Ogre) are all fighting over who will get to run GeneCo once dad’s dead. Rotti plans a big bloody finale for everyone at the Genetic Opera’s final curtain call.
To answer the most burning question, yes it is an opera. There are perhaps five spoken lines and the rest of the movie is completely sung; you will get a solid 85 minutes of people singing while they engage in plenty of questionable acts. To say that Repo is unique is a disservice to the flick. I cannot imagine watching another movie that combines opera, vivisection, surgery addiction, Gothic costuming, and Paris Hilton actually doing a credible performance. Knowing that it is indeed a full-fledged opera, it mostly eliminates the snickers that arise from watching actors break into song at curious moments; when they’re singing all the time you’re more aware when they stop. It’s a futuristic rock opera that exists in the realm of a horror movie. There are several dispirited elements that can be occasionally awkward but that isn’t necessarily the flick’s fault. I just haven’t witnessed too many folks singing while arm-deep inside an exposed chest cavity. The movie isn’t as bloody or gory as repulsed film critics have lead you to believe. There are about four sequences of horror gore, though the film does resort to casual violence that can be off-putting, like stabbing extras. Repo possesses a wickedly entertaining and gleeful spirit.
But how is the music for such an avant guard enterprise? It’s pretty solid, actually. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, naturally with some vulgar lyrics, but the music is certainly well crafted, with strong melodies, catchy hooks, squealing guitars, and some rather impressive singing. The music is reminiscent of industrial rock acts but it also has some pretty flavorful pop styling (the pounding hard rock beats reminded me of the underrated band, kidneythieves). These are tunes that will stick in your grey matter. Some of the highlights include “Infected,” where Shilo laments her condition and says, “I’m infected/By your genetics!/Mother can you hear me?/Thanks for the disease!” The tune is likely the catchiest of them all and has a fun pop-punk melody that becomes a leitmotif. Vega also proves immediately that she can sing. “Zydrate Anatomy” is led by the charming vocals of the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich, who co-wrote the music and lyrics) as he exposits to the audience the ins and outs of the drug market. The guitars careen and the backup junkie chorus (“A little black vial? A little black vial!”) add some depth to the tune. But least you think it’s all Goth rock, Repo mixes in traditional arrangements as well, including plenty of harried violins, cellos, and some classical opera music. There are also subdued ballads like “I Didn’t Know I’d Love You So Much” and “Genetic Emancipation” that conclude the film on a high note. It all blends together into a unique soundscape that’s well worth singing along to.
Unlike the big screen version of Mamma Mia, the cast of Repo can actually sing, and they sing quite well. Vega (Spy Kids) sounds like a better Avril Lavigne than Avril Lavigne. She’s an ingénue that actually gets some good songs. Fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer will recall that Head gave a standout performance on the TV show’s musical episode, and here he shows his amazing lung capacity. Head has a rich tenor voice that is lovely to hear. He howls with soulful anguish and holds onto notes for long duration. It’s tricky to present a performance only through song and Head has the most complex role (in one song he laments that “I’m the monster!/I’m the villain!”). Head also switches over into a gravely demonic voice, like his maniacal “I’m on the job” voice to frighten his victims. The personality shift is a credit to Head’s vocal range. The rest of the cast includes singers with actual opera experience (Sorvino, Brightman) and musicians (Skinny Puppy’s Ogre), and then there’s Hilton. She’s already proven with one flop album that the hotel heiress is not the surest singer in the world. However, she works with the material as a spoiled rich kid consumed by her vanity (at one point her face literally falls off).
Repo! The Genetic Opera plays better as a soundtrack than as a movie. The story is mostly simple but still manages to be confusing at points because of unresolved subplots. The characters are given glimmers of outgrowing their stock roles, but most of them just accept their underwritten fates. Repo seems like it’s on the verge of making social commentary on vanity, man’s compulsion to destroy himself to live outside one’s means, the disposable nature of beauty, destiny versus free will, but it never really delves deeper. The surface is barely skimmed and then the movie kind of chugs along at a super brisk pace. The movie has a trashy, campy atmosphere that can wear thin at times, especially under director Darren Lynn Bousman’s lackluster lens. I know this is low budget but Bousman doesn’t conceal the budget limitations too well and his shot selections can seem rather redundant and mundane for a music video, let alone a feature length film. With that said, this is still worlds more ambitious than Bousman punishing audiences with another Saw sequel (he directed Saw 2-4 and took time off from 5 for this flick). Some of the songs, while fun, seem out of place given the narrative, like the punkish “Seventeen” where Vega declares her womanhood and pretends to be a rock star and pounces around her bedroom, complete with dancing stuffed animals. It’s almost like a Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana moment of strange daydreaming. The finale at the opera is a tad overwrought and yet it seems appropriate given the operatic backdrop.
I’m dumbfounded that some critics would cite Repo! The Genetic Opera as the worst film of 2008. How could something this ambitious, with such a killer soundtrack, be worse than 88 Minutes, The Hottie and the Nottie, and the atrociously harmful Meet the Spartans? The movie is far from perfect and is bizarre, messy, and somewhat shambling, but I have a healthy appreciation for a film that tries something different, whether or not it succeeds. A bloody rock opera seems like it’s begging to be considered midnight movie material, but it’s better than that. This curious experiment works better as a soundtrack than a movie, but it’s well worth seeing because, really, when are you going to catch another freaking movie like this? If you ever venture inside a Gothic-themed club, you can expect to see this movie playing on a TV somewhere until the end of time. My advice: buy the soundtrack and get ready to have the songs take root in your brain.
Nate’s Grade: B-