Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)
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Repo! The Genetic Opera is either the classiest gore film ever made or the most insane musical ever made. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, the man behind the second through fourth Saw films, and written and composed by Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith (based on their stage play The Necromerchant's Debt), this is a blood-soaked rock opera with an inspired cast, a genuinely moving story, absolutely gorgeous visuals, and more shameless camp than any movie since Rocky Horror.

The setup: an epidemic of organ failures leads to the rise of a biotech company called GeneCo, headed by one Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino). People can buy organ transplants from GeneCo on an installment plan, where they can have their life saved now and pay later... but if you don't or can't pay, you get a visit from a "repo man" who's come to take back the GeneCo property inside your body. Furthermore, GeneCo has been promoting genetic plastic surgery in order to get more people hooked on its product, offering such products as hologram-emitting eyes, facial replacements, and the ability to change your race -- all on the same installment plans, with the same response to defaults. Between that plot description and Bousman's involvement, you'd figure that this is a very gory movie, and you'd be absolutely right. The "repo men" are like slasher villains, stalking, trapping, and gutting their quarry while dressed in black trenchcoats and face-concealing helmets that even Heinrich Himmler would find oppressive. This setup planted in the background just enough commentary on the debt crisis, the health care industry, and our pop culture's obsession with image to give the story some depth without beating viewers over the head. (I have a theory in my head that the entire "organ failure epidemic" was mostly hype cooked up by GeneCo in order to get their foot in the door and sell their products. It wouldn't be unlike how real drug companies treat comparatively minor ailments like erectile dysfunction and unsightly blemishes as epidemics in order to sell treatments, and it would be in character for GeneCo here.) Instead, the main plot here is driven more by characters, using these ideas to underline the tale it tells.

The story here follows one repo man, Nathan Wallace (Anthony Stewart Head), whose daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega) suffers from a debilitating blood disease. Nathan pretends to Shilo that he's just a regular doctor, and feels guilt over the death of his wife Marni in a failed attempt to cure her illness, while Shilo feels constrained by her life locked in a room, with only her bedroom window and her TV as connections to the outside world. Through the latter, she can watch the Genetic Opera and its superstar performer Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), who is in a lifetime contract to GeneCo in exchange for eye transplants that allowed her to see again. Meanwhile, Rotti is nearing the end of his life, and is distraught over the fact that the empire he built will fall into the hands of his three children: the short-tempered and foul-mouthed Luigi (Bill Moseley), the grotesque womanizer Pavi (Nivek Ogre), and the surgery-addicted wannabe pop singer Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton, in the role that she was born to play). The story involved me with its characters' schemes, with soap opera-esque twists and turns that didn't fumble across one another as such stories are wont to do.

If you were paying attention to the actors I named in the last paragraph, you're probably going "what the hell are a classical soprano, an industrial metal musician, and Paris Hilton doing in a film like this?" You see how the title of this film contains the word "opera"? It means it in the most literal sense. About 90-95% of the dialogue in this film is sung, with each character having his or her own musical style. Vega's rebellious teenager Shilo, for instance, sings in a pop-punk style reminiscent of Avril Lavigne, while Sorvino's Rotti, the old rich man with the Italian name, sounds like he stepped out of the Met. The unnamed graverobber who acts as the film's Greek chorus (played by writer Terrance Zdunich) rocks out in pure hard rock fashion, Brightman brings her pop-meets-classical style to her performances as Blind Mag, and Hilton... sings like she's coked out of her mind, but that's kind of the point with her character. While a few of the lyrics were corny, once it got necessary exposition out of the way the songs and the story they were carrying started to flow a lot better. The music here flat-out rocks, spanning a number of diverse styles and meshing perfectly with the gothic cyberpunk atmosphere that the film's visuals strive for. I really ought to seek out the soundtrack for this.

Speaking of, this film's unique visual style is another major component of what makes it such an incredible viewing experience. It cobbles together elements of many "dystopian future" movies and mixes them with a gothic, almost Victorian vibe in the clothing and set design, producing something that looks truly unique up on screen. Characters in the 2050s drive around in 1930s European luxury cars and 1990s limousines, live in estates with ghostly holographic portraits, and watch the opera (albeit one that's been... updated for the times). Bizarre plastic surgery has become the new normal; Pavi (who wears other people's faces on top of his own, literally sewed on) is only the most horrifying example, but there's also Blind Mag's holographic eyes and Amber Sweet experiencing a "wardrobe malfunction" in the form of her carved-up face falling off. The film overcomes its modest budget and makes its style look dazzling on screen. I'm surprised that more dystopian sci-fi films haven't drawn style cues from goth culture; the horror-esque atmosphere here lends a strong degree of credible oppressiveness to its society.

Score: 5 out of 5

A rock opera that doesn't blow
Oh, this is my kind of show!
It's got music and style and emotion and frights
If you're not convinced, I'll see you... at the opera tonight!

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