Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
Reviewed by Andrew Kasch
Starring Paul Sorvino, Paris Hilton, Anthony Head, J. Larose, Alexa Vega
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
The term “cult classic” has been used and abused to the point where most of us have stopped caring. Over the years we’ve been bombarded with so many bad midnight movie wannabes, it seemed as though something truly inventive would never come. Well, the wait is over because Repo! The Genetic Opera is the real deal: a fiercely original sideshow freak-out of killer tunes and bloody mayhem unlike anything you’ve ever seen!
Based on the stage play of the same name, Repo! is an industrial rock musical told entirely through song (barely a word is spoken) and set in a neo-Gothic future world of flesh, blood, and leather. But it’s much more than a Goth circus manufactured for the Hot Topic crowd. Underneath the madness is the structure of a timeless opera tale with a full cast of Shakespearean archetypes. In short, Repo! works because its makers actually know a thing or two about opera and concentrate on characters over shock value and incessant weirdness (not that there isn’t plenty of both).
This rather complex tale unfolds through multiple perspectives. After an epidemic of organ failures ravage the planet, the greedy corporation “Geneco” controls the cities by selling transplants. But there’s a catch. Those who miss their payments get their organs repossessed by knife-wielding “Repo Man” Nathan (Head). As the story’s tragic protagonist, Nathan is forced to do the dirty work by greedy Geneco president Rotti Largo (Sorvino) in order to protect his sick daughter, Shilo (Vega). On top of that, Largo is dying, and a power struggle over his empire is being waged by his three demented children (Moseley, Hilton, and Skinny Puppy’s Nivek Ogre). Toss in a mysterious blind diva (Sarah Brightman) and a crazy narcotics-dealing grave robber (co-writer Terrance Zdunich), and you have a recipe for absolute chaos – with poor Shilo at the center of it all.
The set-pieces are wild, and the gore is plentiful, but Repo! wisely grounds the emotion with its bizarre cast of characters. There are certainly a lot to keep track of, but the multiple character threads are perfectly intertwined and helped along by a series of back stories told in the form of animated comic strips. The cast is about as diverse as they come, but each actor – from Sorvino to Moseley – gives a perfect contribution to the film. Above all, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer fans will rejoice the most: Seeing Anthony Stewart Head sing and hack his way back into the spotlight is a real treat, and he utterly dominates this film. Also of note is Alexa Vega (the Spy Kids girl, all grown up and hot), who delivers her big break-out performance. Of course, the addition of Paris Hilton will be the media focal point but for all the wrong reasons. She’s actually quite good here, playing a send-up of herself as Largo’s spoiled, surgery-addicted daughter.
Having cast off the shackles of the Saw sequels, director Darren Lynn Bousman (who also helmed the stage version) has finally come into his own as a filmmaker. No longer working with an established franchise has given him the chance to build his vision from the ground up, and he wisely abandons the music video stylings that plagued his previous films. With no more shaky cams or rapid-fire editing, Bousman’s visuals are sweeping and gorgeous. With stellar production design, Repo’s bleak futuristic world comes to life in stunning detail the likes of Ridley Scott or Terry Gilliam. Recent dystopian films like Southland Tales have had similar ambitions but ultimately drowned in their own excess. Thankfully, Bousman keeps a firm grasp on his universe and explores it all in a coherent fashion.
As with all feature-length musicals, some songs are better than others, but Repo! more than delivers its share of memorable and eclectic tunes. (The soundtrack is a must-buy!) Lovers of industrial/rock/experimental will feel right at home here, while others will have to approach the experience with a more open mind.
Whether or not it’s your cup of tea, Repo! feels 100% uncompromised, and you have to applaud Lionsgate for having the balls to take a chance on it. While it’s certainly original enough to stand on its own, its status as a bizarro opera will place it right up alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise as a cult favorite that will be revisited (and emulated) by an ever-growing legion of fans. You can’t ask for more than that.
4 1/2 out of 5