Repo! The Genetic Opera – DVD Review

I would like to tell you that REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA a such thoroughly fascinating misfire – such an epic train-wreck of bloodshed and carnage – that you simply cannot look away; unfortunately, I did look away: I got bored after about twenty minutes and turned off the DVD, forcing myself to return and finish the ordeal at a later date, after my endurance capacity had been augmented with a good night’s sleep and lots of caffeine. In the end, I’m glad I made the effort, because there is too much ambition on display for the film to be completely dismissed, but I still have to conclude that the good intentions carry REPO! only partway toward success, even on the cult level that it so obviously intends.

Basically, REPO! is a futuristic sci-fi-horror rock opera, but unlike Tim Burton’s horror-musical-comedy SWEENEY TODD, it does not hit all the right notes. The screen is consistently filled with fascinating details (you could spend a lifetime picking out the visual similarities to BLADE RUNNER, MOULIN ROUGE, etc), but all the rococo richness is in service of a story with severe structural weaknesses, and the over-the-top directorial approach suggests high-camp that undermines the obvious attempt at crafting an engagingly operatic melodrama.

The set-up has Shilo (Alexa Vega) living in isolation imposed by her over-protective father Nathan (Anthony Head), who (unbeknownst to her) moonlights as a Repo Man. In this future world, GeneCo, run by Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino) provides engineered organ transplants and elective surgery, but if a customer falls behind on the payments, the company can have have Nathan legally repossess their property, killing the customer in the process. The plot follows Rotti’s attempts to lure Alexa into becoming his heir because he is so disgusted with his own progeny, who are (to put it charitably) a group of freaks (including one addicted to surgery and another who likes to wear other people’s faces).

In order to justify the characters’ actions, the film is bogged down with back story upon back story, explaining the connections between Nathan, Rotti, Shilo, and Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), who used to know Shilo’s late mother. The convolutions grow wearying, never building much audience empathy, so we’re left to sit back and enjoy the music and visuals. As good as they sometimes are, they are not enough to elevate this leaden story.

The songs (there is almost no spoken dialogue) mostly serve as operatic recitatives, filling in the exposition and telling the story in lyrically prosaic rather than poetic fashion, although there is a stand-out scene in which seventeen-year-old Shilo finally expresses some good old-fashioned teenage rebellion courtesy of a hard-rock number that contains one of the few memorable lyrics (”I’m sweeter than sixteen’) and also features a welcome cameo by Joan Jett, thrashing her guitar in approving accompaniment.

Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag

Sarah Brightman as Blind Mag

Too seldom does the soundtrack burst out into a full-blown aria of this sort that invests the action with emotional resonance, and honestly most of the cast seem ill-equipped to deliver such a performance (even though they do a good job of projecting drama through their sung dialogue). The major exception of course is Sarah Brightman, who momentarily brings the film to such grandiose life that you realize just what a masterpiece it could have been if handled entirely correctly.

Also impressive is co-composer Terrance Zdunich’s performance as Graverobber, who acts as a sort of narrator; though hardly an admirable character (he’s a drug pusher), he provides the perfect perspective on the film, inviting us to see the world through the eyes of someone who knows the score, good or bad. Ironically, the actor who is most at home is the one who should have been most out of place: maybe it’s his Italian background, but as Rotti, Sorvino comports himself in exactly the sort of fashion appropriate for a villain of operatic stature.

These highlights make the film worthwhile, but they also showcase the relative weaknesses of the rest of the film, which throws everything at us, whether or not it works. (Rotti’s three adult children add nothing to the plot, for example; their various perversions, lovingly captured by the camera at length, merely serve to tell us why the father would rather bequeath his company to someone else.) There is also a poorly integrated subplot about an addictive, pain-killing drug that Graverobber extracts from bodies – did the writers really feel that a story about a disfunctional-father daughter relationship set against the backdrop of repossessed genetic organs was just not enough to fill up a movie?

Darren Lynn Bousman directs as if he is still working on SAW II-III-IV. His bravura visuals suggest a Baz Luhrmann musical extravaganzas gone bad, with the emotional underpinnings drowned in a welter of gore as Nathan repossesses organs from unwilling victims. This bloodshed works only on an “ain’t it cool” level, never involving the audience. At times, it is almost insulting, as when a major character is casually killed off without a second thought: what should be a moment of grand tragedy is reduced to a cheap shock effect. (Again, compare this to Burton’s SWEENEY TODD, in which the copious bloodshed expressed the high-strung emotional turmoil of the title character, particularly in the film’s closing moments when the drops of blood became, symbolically, red-tinged tears.)

Whether you will want to take a chance on REPO! depends on your tolerance for good ambitions gone wrong. At the very least, the film convincingly creates its own world, in which the bizarre action seems appropriate. You have to give Bousman credit for presenting a unique vision, even if that vision is ultimately skewed.

DVD DETAILS

Lionsgate’s single-disc DVD of REPO! THE GENETIC opera offers a good transfer and solid sound, so that you can enjoy the images and music in almost their full cinematic glory. Bonus materials are limited to a couple of featurettes and two audio commentaries.

“From Stage to Screen” provides a ten-minute rundown on the history of the stage version of REPO! THE GENEIC OPERA and how it was adapted for the screen. This is a decent mini-documentary for those curious about the project’s background.

“Legal Assassin: A Repo on the Edge” is a bit more of a promotional puff piece in which various members of the cast and crew explain what a Repo Man does in the film’s futuristic world.

The audio commentaries tend to overlap information with each other and with the “Stage to Screen” featurette.

The first commentary is chatty, with director Bousman and actors Alexa Vega, Bill Moseley, and Ogre at times threatening to devolve into a sing-along with the on-screen performances. We do learn that George Romero was intended for a cameo (a revelation that prompts Vega to ask, “Who’s George Romero?”) To their credit, the actors ask for – and receive – an explanation or two for plot points left vague in the film (yes, Graverobber’s pain-killing drug is simply extracted from corpses – with no need for lab processing to make it work). Also there is a round of praise for Paris Hilton, who supplied much of the film’s costuming needs out of her own wardrobe.

The second commentary features Bousman again, this time with Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, who created the stage musical and wrote the screenplay for the film, along with all the music. This commentary focuses more on the project’s evolution and on behind-the-scenes details of making the film. Somewhat sadly, it seems to have been recorded at a time when the filmmakers still thought their hardwork would pay off with a sizable hit. One can admired their dedication in getting this quirky project onto the screen, but their justifiable pride creates a communal blindness regarding shortcomings in the final product.

REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA (2008). Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. Screenplay by Darren Smith & Terranc Zdunich, based on their opera. Cast: Alexa Vega, Paul Sorvino, Anthony Head, Sarah Brightman, Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, Nivk Ogre, Terranc Zdunich, Sarah Power, Jessica Horn.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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