Monday, August 8, 2011

Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

The Movie: In the future, an epidemic of organ failures devastated humanity. Our species was almost wiped out, but for Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino of GoodFellas and the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet). Largo started the company GeneCo, which replaced the problem organs with healthy ones. Cosmetic surgery became very popular as a result. Unfortunately, there is the inevitable Faustian clause to the company’s services; GeneCo was able to use its position to become, essentially, a legal loan-sharking operation. If you are unable to pay up on your new organs, GeneCo will send a repo man to come and repossess the property. It’s every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.

GeneCo also created an extremely addictive painkiller called Zydrate. However, the lowlifes of society have discovered that Zydrate can be extracted from corpses. Combined with GeneCo’s policy on organs, it is insured that a thriving black market makes grave robbing a very profitable enterprise; despite the fact that GeneCo can, and does, legally kill anyone who tries to buy or sell the products illegitimately.

Our story takes place many years after this sorry state of affairs began. On the one hand we have seventeen year-old Shilo Wallace (Alexa Vega, of the Spy Kids movies), who has suffered her whole life from a debilitating blood disease. Her mother died at her birth, and her father, Nathan (Anthony Stewert Head, best known for his role in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series); overcome by guilt, grief and obsession, has done his best to keep her locked away from the rest of the world. He’s also been careful to keep his career as a repo man secret from his daughter.

On the other hand we have Mr. Rotti Largo, who has discovered that he is terminally ill. The worst part, for him, is the succession of GeneCo. Rotti does have three children, but they are humiliatingly dysfunctional and, he feels, unfit to inherit. Amber Sweet (the notorious Paris Hilton), is thoroughly addicted to cosmetic surgery and black market Zydrate. Luigi (Bill Moseley of Texas Chansaw Massacre 2 and the Devil’s Rejects), well… let’s just say that to describe him as having anger issues and homicidal tendencies would be grossly understating the issue. Finally, loutish Pavi (Nivek Ogre), has a nasty tendency to, among other things, steal other people’s faces so he can wear them himself.

The two issues collide when Shilo comes to Rotti’s attention. There is far more to her mother’s death than Nathan is willing to admit to, or is even aware of. Also, the two men have a rather nasty history together; far more than that of Nathan working as Rotti’s hatchet man. Rotti sees in Shilo the chance to kill two birds with one stone; find a competent heir for GeneCo, and pay back an old grudge. Unknowingly, Shilo becomes a puppet in a sick game as she desperately tries to find out the truth of her life. It will all come to a head at the big Genetic Opera…

The Movie: For a long time I have had many people telling me I need to see Repo! The Genetic Opera. A friend even loaned me a copy that I had every intention of watching. But you know how it goes; various other things pile up and you keep on putting it off. Finally, I made a point of sitting down to watch. So what was my verdict?

This will probably sound cliché, but Repo! is unlike anything I have ever seen. It consists of elements that would seem to be contradictory, even paradoxically so. Genre wise, Repo! is in turn horror, dystopian science fiction, black comedy/satire, and opera. It is simultaneously beautiful and repulsive, terrifying and gleeful, tragic and perversely hilarious. And yet, all of these disparate elements blend together seamlessly into a mutually coherent whole. This, this movie, is why I consistently search outside the mainstream for my entertainment.

First there is the look of the movie. Repo! employs comic book panels, live action, CGI, and a smidgeon of conventional animation to tell its story. The feel of the setting is mostly Victorian-gothic, and yet the science fiction setting allows it to play with those tropes a bit, throwing delightful bits of anachronism into the mix. In some places, the setting feels removed completely from the conventional time stream. As an example, one of the touches that came to my attention were the portraits of Shilo’s mother that filled her house; they look every bit the stereotype Victorian portrait, except that they are 3D-looking holograms.

Then there’s the music. I, personally, have minimal experience with opera; yet the structure of Repo! fits perfectly the little bit I do know about the art form. Normally I’m not into musicals, but such is the music woven into the makeup of the film that it seems a perfectly natural part of it. Even in a seemingly unsuitable scene for a song number; such as a corporate hatchet man repossessing somebody’s spine, it seems to make perfect sense that said hatchet man would be singing about his situation while he does it.

The final part of Repo! is the cast and characters. While the setup, props and sets and style are all amazing, it is the characters that this film is truly about. Repo! provides us with some truly fascinating individuals (albeit, usually “fascinating” in the exact same way one would find a horrible train wreck fascinating), and it is the people who play them who make the film work. It would not work at all with a less than stellar cast; but fortunately this is never an issue.

It falls to Alexa Vega, as Shilo, to carry most of the film’s weight. All of the major plot points revolve around her as the only true innocent in this twisted web she finds herself trapped in. For the movie to work at all Shilo has to likeable, identifiable and sympathetic. Vega delivers on this in spades. What’s more, I didn’t recognize Vega at all while watching Repo!. There was a small voice in the back of my mind screaming that I should know her from somewhere, but it wasn’t until I saw her name in the ending credits that it clicked. As I’ve mentioned before, I have the utmost respect for actors who can get so far into their role that we forget we are watching them instead of their characters. Vega has talent, and it is my sincere hope that she continues to move on to bigger and better things.

Like so many other people, I mostly know Anthony Head from his role as Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. However, even in that role he displayed diverse and varied talents. Repo! gives Head a chance to employ them all, something which he never fails to do. Head does a remarkable job of displaying a truly multifaceted character. On the one hand, Nathan Wallace is undeniably a monster; and neither Head nor the script do anything to downplay that. However, he is also a human being, and as we get to know how he became what he is, we find him deserving of our sympathy even as we are repulsed by his actions. This is a very difficult balance to nail accurately, but both Head and the script do just that.

The true villains of this piece are equally captivating. Sorvino is perfect as Rotti, the architect of most of this world’s misery. He is the archetypal corporate gangster; brutal, greedy, vindictive, and completely uncaring about whom he hurts to get what he wants. However, even Rotti isn’t a completely two-dimensional caricature. Amazingly, Rotti Largo is practically tailor made to be a villain that I hate and love to hate; and yet there are a few scenes where a very small part of me cannot help but feel the tiniest bit of sympathy for him. That’s pretty remarkable.

One of the people who suggested this movie to me said that it’s one of the rare instances where I would actually want to see Paris Hilton. Believe it or not (and I still don’t), she was telling the truth. Hilton is great as a spoiled, rich brat. Admittedly, one could make a legitimate argument about typecasting in this case, but the woman also has some talent as a singer. Moseley and Ogre are also good as second-tier villains.

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Terrance Zdunich in his role as the unnamed criminal (the credits just have him listed as “Graverobber”) who is Repo!’s Greek chorus. The man is definitely a dark and sinister figure, yet he proves to be no actual threat to Shilo. Instead he serves her (and us in the audience) as a guide to the twisted world in which they live. He also helps keep the audience abreast of the major plot developments. Zdunich does a wonderful job; and in some ways reminds me of the M.C. character in Cabaret, who plays a similar role.

In conclusion, Repo! the Genetic Opera is a gory, nightmarish, tragic, hilarious, and very well done example of the art form. It is well put together, with a great cast and script. Truly a work of demented genius, I would love to see more work from the guy who originally created it.

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