Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)


[Note: The following review is of an unfinished cut of Repo! The Genetic Opera, which we were personally invited to see by the film's director Darren Lynn Bousman. This version of the film ran several minutes longer than the final cut is expected to run. It was not yet color corrected, and its special-effects shots and sound mix were not yet complete.]

Horror musical, sci-fi saga, goth fable?Repo! The Genetic Opera is many things, and yet, in the end, it?s like nothing I?ve ever seen before. Director Darren Lynn Bousman?s screen adaptation of the off -Broadway musical?like so many ambitious, uncategorizable films before it?could easily have spun out of control. Consider such movies as Francis Ford Coppola?s Dracula or Luc Besson?s The Fifth Element; films that, in the end, amounted to little more than noisy, expensive blurs. But Bousman (who helmed Saws II through IV) keeps the craziness focused, and he?s helped by a terrific score of fifty-seven songs and one of the most eclectic casts in recent memory. His film instead invites comparisons to such grand visions as Blade Runner, Brazil and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Repo!?s near-future world, established in a prologue of snappy comic-book panels (a recurring motif used to explain backstory throughout the film), is one in which human organ failure has become a global pandemic, allowing Geneco, the world?s leading organ supplier, to seize and maintain a tyrannical hold on the populace?a hold enforced by the masked Repo Men, who viciously reclaim Geneco?s property when their clients fail to make timely payments. Geneco?s president is Rotti Largo, and Largo's role, like most of the film?s, is perfectly cast, in this case with veteran actor Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas? mob boss) turning in a gravelly, understated performance. Largo?s three ineffectual children include the short-tempered Luigi (played by Bill Mosely?here even more batshit crazy than he was in The Devil?s Rejects), Pavi (Skinny Puppy?s Nivek Ogre)?who wears a clown-like mask of human flesh?and the spoiled Amber Sweet. Amber is played by Paris Hilton, but those who fear that this bit of casting, with America?s premiere celebutante, might be a cheap publicity stunt threatening a bold, left-of-center experiment, needn?t worry: as with her castmates, it?s hard to imagine someone better suited for the role. Even Hilton?s brief singing is unobtrusive (and, truth be told, she is pretty easy on the eyes).

Rotti Largo, however, is less interested in his disappointing children than in seventeen-year old Shilo Wallace (played by the now-grown-up Spy Kid Alexa Vega) and her father Nathan (Buffy the Vampire Slayer?s Anthony Head). It turns out that many years ago Largo was in love with Shilo?s mother. But when she rejected him for Nathan, he maneuvered to trap the kindly husband and father, and forced him to become a Repo Man. As Buffy fans are well aware from that series? musical episode, Head has a tremendous singing voice; and he turns in the film?s best performance, acting through his songs and creating two distinct personas at war with one another.

Vega is almost as good as Shilo; and the triangle she creates with Nathan and Largo gives the film its emotional core. In fact, with her pale face and long black hair, Vega?s the perfect Goth princess, trapped in a fairy tale as dark as any imagined by the Brothers Grimm. But the only fairy godmother she has to speak of is Blind Mag, an opera superstar employed by Largo, and played by Phantom of the Opera?s songbird Sara Brightman. (Mag?s eyes are enhanced biomechanical implants, with a nifty ability that I?ll leave viewers to discover for themselves.) The only prince in sight is the mysterious Grave Robber, who sells a black-market version of a painkiller called Zydrate, which he extracts from dead bodies, to addicts like Amber Sweet. Grave Robber?s played by Terrance Zdunich, who co-wrote the film?s script and songs. It?s Zdunich?s first feature film role, but if the fates are kind it won?t be his last?his Grave Robber belts out some of the film?s best songs, functioning as a macabre narrator, and inviting comparisons to both The Rocky Horror Picture Show?s Richard O?Brien and Cabaret?s Joel Grey.

Repo! could be described as an instant cult classic, but that label downplays its potential appeal. Rock opera fans will love it of course, as will aficionados of horror, fantasy and sci-fi. Anyone, however, with a taste for the bizarre or adventurous, who loves films smart enough to acknowledge their predecessors and brave enough to forge their own paths, won?t mind giving their heart to this opera.