Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008)

My interest in this film fluctuated wildly as I heard mixed reviews (I think, perhaps, the most mixed reviews I've ever heard–utter loathing and absolute love, but that's probably just the fault of my memory) and saw the cast and watched the trailer. Some faces and names were interesting (Anthony Stewart Head, Paul Sorvino, Bill Moseley, Ogre, I mean, Kevin, I mean Nivek….from Skinny Puppy) and some were not, or were even cause to think about maybe NOT seeing the film (Paris Hilton, Sarah Brightman…).. The concept intrigued me, but I wasn't sure about the musical option–which could be either fantastically engaging or intensely obnoxious and uncomfortable.

Shilo Wallace (Alexa Vega) is the daughter of Nathan (Head), confined to her room by a blood disease, and thus almost unaware of the world around her. It's the distant future, and massive organ failure has led to the rise of GeneCo, a company that leases organs to people. By appropriately swinging their growing influence, the company manages to push through a bill that legalizes the repossession of organs on which loans have defaulted. GeneCo employes "Repo Men" for this purpose, and the most prominent one is Nathan. This is not a simple matter of employment, though, as there is a twisted and tragic story behind Nathan, his daughter, her mother and the current owner of GeneCo, Rotti Largo (Sorvino). Rotti and Nathan loved the same woman, the mother of Shilo. Rotti holds Nathan to an oath over her to keep him in his employ, while trying to contend with his selfish children Pavi (Ogre), Luigi (Moseley) and Heather Sweet (Hilton). Wandering around outside the endless tragedy of these lives, but affecting them, are the Graverobber (Terrance Zdunich, who co-created and wrote the film) and Blind Mag (Brightman), who is GeneCo's face and spokesperson for her beautiful voice.

This is a musical, in case that somehow has not yet reached you. It's also a movie interested in gore (using the name of director Darren Lynn Bousman to market it, because he produced some of the Saw films) and horror and science fiction ideas. It's filled with ideas, really, some of which are rather Grand Guignol–especially the idea of a man who repossesses organs from living defaulters. Drugs marketed specifically to take advantage of their addictive nature but bootlegged by the Graverobber from corpses, addiction to surgery (the phrase alone has tinges of bands like Cannibal Corpse, Pungent Stench and a more clumsy Carcass) and the melodramatic enhanced clichés that make up the Lotti children–Sweet being the surgery addict, Pavi wearing other faces over his scarred one and womanizing constantly. It's all incredibly over-the-top, and one had better know that going into this. It's absurd and ridiculous and there's no way around it. The music is not designed to be like pop songs with clearly rhyming lyrics, though it often has something rather like a chorus.

The sanely critical reviews I read said that the film overreaches itself, has too much for its budget, and this isn't an unfair take on it. It is reaching further than its budget would allow, and it does show, but it does very well with what it has, actually. The world is pretty fully realized (though it often shows that it's indoors, in truth, when it seems like it oughtn't) and interesting visually, all lit in bizarre and garish colours, with costuming and sets all very impressive and unusual. The story is solid and engaging, twisty enough to hold your interest without needing to be as ridiculous as the setting and effects are, which they are supposed to be as well. A lot of the music has a nice tinge of catchiness, with very appropriate lyrics.

However, there are definitely some flaws here. Many of the lyrics are, frankly, juvenile in their angst and melodrama. Some of the music is a little simplistic, too, and that's definitely the biggest failing. It's occasionally a little awkward, though it's all earnest enough in its performance that it usually works just fine anyway. Of course, it's also somewhat humourous (deliberately, naturally) so that can often offset this (with the distinct exception of "17," which is an awful and ridiculous and stupid song), and also offset the other problem: Bill Moseley and Ogre are not opera singers. Really, no one in the cast is except Brightman, and possibly Sorvino–who at least seems to know the style well enough to fake it if he hasn't, and it shows. It's not offensive, but it has the same awkwardness as the occasionally deficient lyrics.

Interestingly, the most exciting roles, at least vocally, were from Sorvino and Zdunich. Brightman and Head have great voices for different reasons, and possibly the most engaging songs as a result, but Zdunich and Sorvino manage to bring character to their voices instead of either performance or trying to push character into the voice (which is what Moseley does–which is actually probably the best approach for a man who strikes me as a non-singer, to be fair to him). Sorvino's menacingly tortured and torturous Lotti Largo comes out in his dark laughter and his well-paced singing, that is close to spoken word in a sense until it comes to appropriate crescendos. Zdunich, of course, is devoted to the role because he originated it, and it shows. He smirks and smiles in perfect ways for his extremely "goth" look, which works very well for both him and the character. His songs make his character very well-defined, and he uses his body and his face to enhance the songs and his singing. Hilton, for the record, is neither offensive nor problematic (and the cast and crew said she was actually fun to work with, even!).

It's a film that trips itself ups a number of times, but it's still a fun experience if you are willing to forgive its limitations and appreciate the insane aesthetic and gory interests behind it.


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