From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Every theatre person has, in the bloom of youth, cried out, “That’s a great idea for a show!” then made camp in an organic-only coffeehouse for two years, scribbling on a Moleskine and occasionally, for extra artist-cred, napkins. They max out their credit cards to buy secondhand props, hire their most talented friends, and launch the show to rave reviews by the campus paper for the full two weeks of the run. Usually, that’s where it ends, because usually these sorts of projects aren’t very good. This is where Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith should have stopped. Instead, we get Repo!.

Repo! The Genetic Opera is a high-concept rock opera that tries earnestly to be this generation’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. The movie imagines a near-future urban landscape in which a family monopoly rules over the ruthless organs-for-hire industry — if you can’t pay up, they send out Repo Men to recall all your viable organs. The concept is intriguing, and promises an anarchic dystopia that seems the ideal setting for a modern rock opera.

…you’d think.

Repo - Rotti LargoThe opera follows the Largo family patriarch Rotti Largo and his attempt to take revenge on Nathan, the young doctor who stole the love of Rotti’s life. Nathan now works for Largo as a Repo Man, a secret he keeps from his sheltered daughter Shilo, who is confined to the house because of a congenital blood disease (a convenient way to shoe-horn ‘genetics’ into every domestic solo). When Shilo slips out of the house to meet Rotti, who claims to have found her cure, it’s supposed to be a series of through-the-looking-glass encounters that lead all the characters to a final showdown at that evening’s grand opera. It never gets there.

The movie isn’t all bad: Anthony Stewart Head delivers a charismatic performance with what he’s given, and Terrance Zdunich’s rascal Graverobber brings a welcome dose of dark humor to an over-earnest production. Unfortunately, no one can rise above material that’s as dull and weighty as Repo!‘s. Nathan whines at length about the horrors of being a Repo Man, even though the only moment his character comes alive is during the cheerful disembowelment of a screaming victim as Nathan grumps that no one appreciates the good job he does. It is the movie’s only success — a moment of true subversive and infectious glee — and Nathan’s subsequent navel-gazing is both disappointing and incongruous.

Repo ManUnfortunately, this isn’t the only instance of the movie contradicting its internal logic or skimping out on characterization. Nathan in particular seems a victim of the plot — he works for Rotti for no discernible reason and suffers under the guilt of killing his wife to save his daughter, even though the movie overtly states he could have chosen to save his wife and just shut up. On the other hand, if you don’t kill the mother you have one fewer female victim, and Repo! seems determined to rack up as many of those as possible. The movie was developed by the production company responsible for the Saw movies, which explains but does not excuse the gory misogyny rampant throughout; scantily-clad nurses are disemboweled as punch lines, and even the female corpses can’t seem to keep their tops on. Repo! is one of those dystopias in which women are either fishnet-clad bodyguards, fishnet-clad whores, or doomed to die as a victim of circumstances beyond their control. (Blind Mag, Shilo’s godmother — played by the visibly-embarrassed Sarah Brightman — has bionic eyes which are due to be repossessed after the concert by Nathan, no less. Family reunion!)

Though almost every line of the movie is sung (or, more accurately, ‘sung’), in all 98 minutes there are only three snippets of melody that are memorable. “Zydrate Anatomy”, “Chase the Morning”, and “We Started This Op’ra Shit” have enough melody to hang on to, and come the closest to Rocky Horror infectiousness. The rest of the music sounds like a compilation of notes and words selected at random, and it grows exhausting as the movie slogs onward. The songwriters make no attempt to create any musical or character themes; the heroine, Shilo, usually warbles exposition, with one particularly awkward Avril Lavigne knock-off in which she makes finger guns at Joan Jett and slaps her own ass in front of her dad as she declares her independence. This happens moments after she begs the Graverobber to take her home because the outside world frightens her and she wants to be back home.

Worse yet, it’s a cacophony without any purpose, as the lyrics rarely forward character or even plot — and the filmmakers are so doubtful of the lyrics being of any use that they introduce the movie and each character with lengthy comic-book backstory in an attempt to engage the viewer. (Hint: it doesn’t work.)

Repo - Blind MagThe characters, cookie-cutter archetypes to the last breast-baring day player, have so much plot to get through that they often seem bewildered. Shilo believes that Rotti will deliver on his promised cure for her blood disease; shortly thereafter, she escapes him; shortly thereafter, she follows another invitation from Rotti into one of those foreboding rooms constructed to restrain the most credible of ingénues. When you consider that the entire movie takes place over a single day, our heroine suddenly seems dumber than a box of hair. She must get it from her father the random amnesiac, who forgets at intervals that he really loves his job.

The supporting cast, dotted with such musical luminaries as Ogre from Skinny Puppy, Paul Sorvino, and Paris Hilton, sings for itself. (Off-key, usually.) The fact that Paris Hilton does not embarrass herself amongst this cast says volumes, I think, about the quality of both the cast and the music.

Repo - ShilohAdvance buzz for the movie has been largely positive, and many musical-theatre and Rocky Horror fans will undoubtedly find much to love about this movie. Early promotional posters with Soviet-propaganda undertones are sly and beautiful, and the trailers have been squeezed and tucked like a debutante into a corset trying to shape it into something alluring. Clearly someone was trying to make a movie of a certain vision, and film buffs often respect something that tries to be unique, even if the vision is lost in a muddle of amateurish design and rote conflicts spiced up by brief, painful moments of hope that something is taking a turn for the better. (You will feel this several times. It will never be true.)

Ultimately, two men with a dream and a scribbled-on napkin does not a good movie make, and for all the effort made in taking the project from the stage to the screen, none of it helped; an off-kilter and inventive stage musical bloats into a series of smug, dour set pieces on the way to a nonsense conclusion that will leave you wondering if the filmmakers really did hire their most talented friends, chose musical and lyrical phrases at random for 98 minutes, and hoped for the best. (Hint: it doesn’t work.)

See Page 2 for the Repo! Media Gallery

Repo the Genetic OperaTitle: Repo! the Genetic Opera
Release Date: November 7, 2008 (Limited: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and Las Vegas)
Rating: R
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Screenplay: Darren Smith & Terrance Zdunich
Paul Sorvino
Anthony Head
Alexa Vega
Sarah Brightman

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Genevieve Valentine is a writer in New York; her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Farrago’s Wainscot, Diet Soap, Journal of Mythic Arts, and Fantasy. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog. She is currently working on a formula to evaluate the awfulness of any given film, a scale that will be measured in Julians.

Warning: Spoilers in the comments.

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