The Good: Stylish, Clever, Good music, Interesting characters, Good message, Surprisingly good acting, DVD Bonus features.
The Bad: A little lighter on character than I would like.
The Basics: Arguably a perfect movie, Repo! The Genetic Opera is creative, entertaining and stylish when it is not simply reimagining Shakespeare's King Lear.
After months of waiting, my wife picked up Repo! The Genetic Opera on DVD. Before she sat me down to it, amidst my overload of Best Picture winners, she warned me that while she loved the film, I was likely to not enjoy it. That said, she sat me down for the gory musical and when it was done, we both got a surprise each. She was surprised that I liked it. I did enjoy Repo! The Genetic Opera; it reminded me of King Lear. I was surprised to find out she didn't know what King Lear was. We both learned a little something that night. This is an almost-perfect film and it has a great DVD/Blu-Ray presentation. Yes, I've just compared Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich to Shakespeare and launched director Darren Lynn Bousman into a category I almost never use.
In fact, my wife's prediction about my reaction to Repo! The Genetic Opera was founded in a pretty solid core of knowing exactly who I am. I've never been a fan of horror/gore films. In fact, there's only one I've seen which I own in my collection and would classify as of such a high caliber as being close to perfect would be: 28 Days Later. Moreover, I'm not a fan of musicals and it has been a long time since I have encountered one that was so creative that I would enthusiastically recommend it. But on the merits, Repo! The Genetic Opera is close to a perfect film, despite the excessive (but plot-sensible) gore and the best musical I've seen since Across The Universe.
In the middle of the twenty-first century, following an epidemic of organ failures, GENECO emerges as a world leader in the medical and pharmaceutical industry. They have made organ transplants a big business and they have saved a sizable portion of the population with their services. However, as the upper classes begin to use surgery as the next fashion trend, the underclasses become deeply indebted to GENECO for their necessary organ transplant work. When the poor fall behind on their payments for their organs, the Repo Man is sent in to repossess the transplanted organs.
Nathan is the Repo Man and he tears the organs out of indebted clients of GENECO with a ferocity that is counter to the protective father role he has with his ill daughter, Shilo. As Nathan works to protect Shilo from her illness and keep his identity as the Repo Man a secret to her, the head of GENECO, Rotti Largo, finds himself in the final stages of a fatal disease. Rotti has three children competing to inherit GENECO, but Rotti is unhappy with them (given one is a psychopath, another a spoiled heiress and drug addict, and the third is a faceless freak whose surgeries have made him a monster) and he wants to ensnare his old love's daughter to take over GENECO instead. Rotti has his sights set on Shilo and as Rotti moves to turn her away from Nathan, Blind Mag - a singer who is the advertising face of GENECO and is looking to break her contract with the company by performing only one last time - moves to try to save Shilo and prevent her from a fate of virtual slavery to GENECO.
First Repo! The Genetic Opera manages to tell both a timeless tale (the King Lear-type plot) as well as make a biting social commentary on today's subcultures (ironically, many of the ones that laud this film). That elective surgery would be the next trend both in a world where organ failure is rampant as well as a world where the trends have evolved from long hair to piercings to tattoos makes perfect sense. After all, with the exteriors purposely altered, there is truly only the internal organs as the new frontier of self-expression. It becomes both the upper class and the rebellious form of self-expression, with the upper classes sporting elective surgery scars tastefully and the underclasses becoming addicted to the medicine, Zydrate, used anesthetize patients for their elective surgeries. Smith and Zdunich have a good sense of vision for creating parallel social statements and recalling that respectable and vulgar rebellion often go hand in hand (i.e. in the '60s political and Civil Rights revolution were mainstream in a way that free love and pot smoking never became).
Second, the narrative techniques employed by Repo! The Genetic Opera are stylish and instantly engaging. Presenting the backstory of the ruined world with panels as if from a graphic novel, the film dissolves into combinations of deep blacks which are rich and hide everything but movement and contrasts of vivid colors. The world of Repo! is a dark one, but for the human moments, there are beautiful colors that have a vibrancy that contrasts the gray, black and burned tones of so much of the outside. As important character conflicts come up, the backstory for each relevant character is introduced. As a result, after quite a bit of the Repo Man tearing out spines and hearts, we are finally told how Nathan was compelled to become the Repo Man by Rotti Largo. The divergences are combinations of comic strips and live action scenes on screen and the look and feel of the movie is fresh, despite the repetition throughout the movie.
Third, Repo! The Genetic Opera tells a timeless story of privilege competing with basic human emotions. Rotti Largo is very Lear-esque and as he looks over the financial empire he has built, he finds his heirs to be unworthy of the glory and unable to take the responsibility of running GENECO. It is a timeless story where the current leaders try to prepare their successors to insure their legacy is maintained. Of course, Rotti Largo is not a decent guy by any means. He is accompanied by two vixens armed with a lethal arsenal each that they utilize at a nod from Rotti and he used his wealth and influence to make the repossessions his company executes legal. Rotti Largo is self-serving and villainous.
At the same time, Rotti is a human being and as such, he is subject to complex human emotions. His simple desire to have something survive him runs hand in hand with his heart being mired in the past, an unresolved love for Marni, the woman who left him for Nathan. Shilo represents the closest Rotti may ever get to reconnecting with Marni and he attempts to use her in order to serve his own base desires (though a more charitable person might suggest it was because Rotti wants to make up for his own sins, namely having Nathan kill Marni without knowing he was doing it).
Nathan is a similarly wounded man, whose entire life revolves around keeping Shilo safe from the horrors of the world, where he himself is a prominent nightmare. Having lost his wife and only able to save Shilo, the seventeen year-old is Nathan's last connection to humanity. Shilo is very much a seventeen year-old and she rebels against her father in a very real way and often contrary to her own best interests. Smith and Zdunich incorporate several Shakespearean conceits into Repo! The Genetic Opera, most notably the witness to the past (Blind Mag) and the jester/narrator (the Graverobber).
The sense of style encompasses all aspects of Repo! The Genetic Opera, not just the bold color contrasts and narrative techniques. The music is that of a classic rock opera and the songs are memorable. Director Darren Lynn Bousman uses the medium remarkably well, so this never feels like it even could have been a stage play (save at the climactic scene, which happens on a stage). The sets, costumes and camerawork are extraordinary and there is an almost-constant sense of movement throughout. This is truly a masterwork.
What fleshes out the world is the extraordinary acting throughout. While Terrence Zdunich appears disarmingly enough as the Graverobber, the rest of the cast is fairly recognizable and Bousman gets amazing performances out of one and all. Ogre (I swear that's his credited name) is homogenously creepy and Bill Moseley plays Luigi as a psychopath who is so unpredictable he is difficult to watch. The real surprise of the film comes not from Sarah Brightman's eye-popping performance as Blind Mag, but rather from Paris Hilton. Hilton may be said to barely be acting as Amber Sweet, Rotti Largo's daughter, as she is a spoiled heiress, but her performance is wonderful, as if she can make her reputation into a joke and run with it. She plays the role perfectly.
The performances, though, hinge on the work of Paul Sorvino (Rotti), Anthony Stewart Head (Nathan) and Alexa Vega (Shilo). The three work separately and alone to create the most prominent character arcs of the film and they are most responsible for the vocal performances. Sorvino is perfect, embodying an ill old man with both the hints of his former dignity and his still active scheming nature. Head oscillates perfectly between the doting father and the brutal "surgeon." Alexa Vega walks, sings and speaks with a maturity and strength well beyond her years and is able to play vulnerable and assertive with equal strength.
Ultimately, the combination of all of the elements, along with the lack of any real defects (there are moments the characters are archetypes, but this is a minor flaw and considering the Shakespearean nature of the work) makes for a near perfect film. But Repo! The Genetic Opera is not for everyone. It is exceptionally gory, but the gore has a context that works perfectly for it and Bousman makes it work without the film feeling like it is exploiting the base thrill some people might get off seeing others eviscerated. The film is remarkably smart and when it is not expressing observations key to the human condition, it is entertaining with song, dance and surprises.
On DVD, Repo! The Genetic Opera arrives loaded with bonus features. There are two different commentary tracks which offer different insights into the production of the film and they are informative and entertaining. As well, there is a featurette on translating the original stage play into the film and another on the role of legal assassins in the world of Repo! There is also the theatrical trailer for this movie and several horror films.
Anyone with a strong stomach and the desire to see something both new and classic will want to watch Repo! The Genetic Opera with an open mind. The experience is shocking, fun, and ultimately rewarding.
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© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.