Archive for November 7, 2008

Repo! The Genetic Opera

November 7, 2008

A lot of people worked extremely hard to make something unique on a budget of peanuts with Repo! The Genetic Opera. It’s being aggressively sold, from screening to screening, as the next big midnight movie, and a great many viewers are responding to the hype. Bless ’em. I’m not on board for this ride, but bless ’em.

Repo! is a macabre folly with mad-lab blood and guts, about a future in which people who can’t keep up the payments on their GeneCo organ transplants have ’em yanked out. Nifty. But all of this is yoked to a shaky conceit — practically the entire thing is sung. It’s a rock opera, with emphasis on “opera” (hence the title, of course). It’d be nice if any of the songs were distinctive — only one, “At the Opera Tonight,” works up any sort of performance fervor — and they’re all in the same key, with guitars always grinding away underneath. The rhymes are simplistic, when they exist at all, and the meter is frequently awkward — a danger of forcing songs to carry too much expository weight. A movie like this reminds you of how good Joss Whedon is at this stuff, and how deceptively hard it is to do well.

Another reminder of Joss Whedon is Anthony Stewart Head, who first demonstrated his pipes to a wider audience on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As Nathan Wallace, a doctor who keeps his daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega) in bedroom quarantine while moonlighting as a self-hating organ repo man, Head gnashes and wails his way through the movie, and his steadfast commitment to this absurdity is touching. Nathan is a classic mad-doctor monster with a guilty, anguished heart; Head makes him a fully rounded human being. But the rest of Repo! is tacky and busy, with loving close-ups of scalpels cleaving flesh that indicate the gross-out roots of director Darren Lynn Bousman (three of the Saw sequels). Visually, the movie comes on strong — framed by comic-book panels — though it only touches beauty in the scenes having to do with Sarah Brightman in full goth-geisha efflorescence as a blind opera singer who owes her restored sight to the villain of the piece, GeneCo honcho Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino).

I wish the execution matched the ideas (including a black market for painkillers injected into surgery patients), but too much of Repo! comes off as look-at-us, aren’t-we-diabolical. Truly, the movie doesn’t gain a lot from being set to music; after about half an hour it starts to feel like a gimmick. The very concept of a blood-spattered horror opera is meant to be so out-there it’s a ready-made cult flick, but cult movies work best when they amass their cults organically, luring the faithful gradually on its own merits, instead of going city to city hunting them down like some flyer-clutching street team. There are Repo! ringtones, and several of the characters have their own MySpace pages. The Rocky Horror Picture Show secured its reign without any of that, plus it was fun, and that’s where Repo!, for all its four-color bravado, comes up short.

But, again, it’ll strike some as the dark candy they’ve always wanted, while others, like me, will stand out in the cold wondering what the fuss is about. I wouldn’t dream of begrudging anyone their participatory midnight-movie thrills; it’s not as if there’s anything else serving the purpose out there. But when the midnight movie is accompanied by the makers telling you it’s a midnight movie, I smell hard-sell.