Lionsgate // 2008 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // January 20th, 2009
And what if you could have genetic perfection? / Would you change who you are if you could?
Repo! The Genetic Opera has the distinction of being the only musical to take place in a post-apocalyptic gothic dystopia. A rip-roaring rock opera done Grand Guignol style, with thick spurts of crimson and plenty of latex and lace. It's a cinematic experience you could only replicate by listening to Trent Reznor and La Traviata while licking hallucinogenic toads.
Many a well-meaning parent has assured their kid "It's what's on the inside that counts," and in the not-too distant future that self-esteem builder is now gospel. In this world, surgery is fashion, and people swap out the parts they no longer like for what's new and superior; only, instead of noses and breasts, it's livers and hearts.
GeneCo is the sole supplier of these spare parts and they offer all their organs on a generous credit plan. Fall behind on your payments, though, and they'll send the Repo Man to hunt you down, cut you open, and take their pound of flesh...literally.
Seventeen year-old Shilo (Alexa Vega, a long way from Spy Kids) is an emo Rapunzel, locked away in a skyscraper tower until one day she accidentally tumbles down the rabbit hole and into the real world of grave robbers, anesthetic addicts, love triangles, blood feuds, and operatic tragedies.
To be sure, Repo! The Genetic Opera is an acquired taste, but what a taste that is. With its gore, gothic trappings, and certain amount of critical heft, it's a pastiche of popular culture -- highbrow and low -- sent through a strainer and turned into visual absinthe.
For years now, horror filmmakers have been testing how far they can push the levels of graphic torture an audience will put up with, instead of testing how far they could push the boundaries of the genre. Horror movies used to have a message; they were mirrors meant to reflect our own ugliness back at us. Night of the Living Dead was about racism; Dawn of the Dead, rampant consumerism. Others had elements of 'Nam and nuclear fears, and don't even get me started on Cronenberg. Repo! may be glossy and over-the-top but it's also about humanity's willingness to carve into themselves and call it beauty; a way of achieving genetic perfection that's disturbingly Third Reich. They just happen to say it with frilly shirts and fishnet stockings.
Based on the stage play by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, Darren Bousman used his clout as director of three installments of the Saw franchise and convinced Lionsgate to let them make their labor of love. Together, the three have created something truly original, on a smaller budget than most studio slashers. It has the slick veneer and daring costumes of Rocky Horror but mines the classics like Phantom of the Paradise for its satirical plot. Repo Man is a conflicted singing anti-hero from the same mold as Andrew Lloyd Weber's versions of Judas and The Phantom, while the twisted Largo clan is pure Shakespeare. Throw in the fragile, consumptive heroine of many a Victorian novel, a Falco reference, with set dressing styled after communist propaganda, and you get both a film begging to be dissected and a movie that makes you want to get up and romp.
That's the fishnet-wearing academic inside me, squeeing away, but Repo! The Genetic Opera is a story about organ-snatching at its black bloody heart, so there's plenty of stabbing, slitting, and face-stealing. Like all good operas, a good chunk of the cast wind up dead before the final curtain, but the violence is so over the top it didn't even trigger my dainty gag reflex. A couple flashes of breast and some fully-clothed sexual shenanigans are thrown in to grab that coveted R rating.
It's impossible not to find something to like in a musical landscape where Sarah Brightman and half of Skinny Puppy share a soundtrack, while slappy bass and soaring sopranos intertwine in ways that shouldn't be legal. Slinky, shimmy-happy barnstormer "We Started this Op'ra Shit," where satisfied surgical clients are goaded to stand up and "testify!," is the most fun, but foot-stomping industrial anthem "Zydrate Anatomy" and more traditional rock opera numbers like "Night Surgeon" and "Let the Monster Rise" make you want to throw up the devil horns. There's a huge range of influences on display, everything from Broadway and opera, to Marilyn Manson and the handclaps and "hey heys" of Bow Wow Wow. As I type this, the soundtrack is on its third straight day of spooling through my skull, with no signs of stopping.
The cast is equally eclectic, with musical vets rubbing latex elbows with PBS stars and movie newbies. Paul Sorvino wasn't just blowing smoke when he quit Law & Order to become an opera singer; the man has an incredible set of pipes. If you only know him as Giles on Buffy, you will be amazed at how utterly badass Anthony Stewart Head can be, even when agonizing about his tortured double life in a costume that's part sanitation worker and part SS officer. Paris Hilton, in a complete stretch, plays a spoiled heiress with delusions of grandeur. Her delivery is shrill and whiny, but for once it's actually supposed to be. Her dead eyes have found a perfect home in the post apocalyptic landscape. Co-creator Terrance Zdunich's Narrator is a grave-robbing pusher with a roguish twinkle who instantly smashes any suspicions his inclusion was a bit of ego-casting.
On its way from the stage production to the final cut, Repo! has been sliced open and stitched up more times than Frankenstein's monster, so some plot points no longer pan out. The bug hunt that kicks off Shilo's escape and the entire tragic plot is now a random MacGuffin, and Blind Mag only appears in short TV clips until much later in the movie, which doesn't give Sarah Brightman much chance to shine. Some of the missing story is laid out in comic book panels, which look cool but kill the musical momentum. It's 20 minutes before "Legal Assassin" gives up the movie's first full-on rock opera number and the flashback strips are completely unnecessary, spoiling the twists about to be revealed in the next song. Several of the cut songs play over the credits and more are mentioned in the commentary as being recorded and/or filmed but they're nowhere to be found on the DVD.
The biggest drawback to the Repo! DVD is the Repo! DVD. The extra features have no teeth. "From Stage to Screen" is a solid behind the scenes look at the musical's long road to the big screen, but there's no featurettes with cast input, even though interview excerpts are posted to the IMDb listing. "Legal Assassin" is just a converted website promo that's so tiny and tilted you can't read the captions. The Actor/director commentary reveals a set of people so passionate about the movie they know all the words, but they also shut out the viewer by sharing private jokes or ignoring what's on screen so the director can bring up one of their auditions on his computer. This wouldn't be so annoying, if they were somewhere on the disc so the rest of us could check them out.
To add insult to injury, the anamorphic transfer looks beautiful but has shifted the 1.85:1 picture into a 1.78:1 that cuts off the far edges and chops letters off word balloons. The 5.1 track is slightly off balance, with the music sometimes overwhelming the words of the chorus, and there's no option of shifting to a less visceral but more even 2.0.
Repo! The Gentic Opera is a movie greater than the sum of its parts, if you'll excuse the pun. Weird in the very best sense, with a soundtrack that will eat your life, there's no way one viewing is going to be enough. If you can't find something in here to enjoy then you're just not trying. Someone at Lionsgate dropped the ball majorly, because if even half the passion had gone into the DVD release as Repo! itself, the disc would have nailed a perfect score.
Not Guilty. Testify!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site