Imagine if The Big Lebowski-era Coen Brothers had helmed Blade Runner, and you might have some idea of what to expect from deft director Darren Lynn Bousman's latest blood-romp, Repo! The Genetic Opera.
Repo! The Genetic Opera is a spirited, absorbing, astounding, thought-provoking futuristic and fulsome fable quite unlike anything I've ever seen. My first comparative consideration upon seeing an early screening was: "1984 meets Cemetery Man." Then I thought, "No, it's more Brazil vs. Rocky Horror Picture Show." However, it could be "Gattaca gets with Sweeney Todd." Or maybe even "Moulin Rouge melded with Fahrenheit 451." Then again... there's a little Wizard of Oz in there. And some Metropolis.
See what I mean? This outlandish, lavish tale will be impossible to pigeonhole — which, personally, I love; nevertheless, it's movies like this that give marketing people and publicists tics — but what it really has going for it is heart. And hearts.
In the not-too-distant future, it will be fashionable to not only clothe and accessorize yourself with designer brands, but it'll be trés trendy to actually be super-chic from the inside-out. As you pass through the ever-present x-ray machines, everyone will see your Gucci guts, your Halston heart, and your Prada pancreas. But what happens when you can't make your payments? Much like a leased auto that's subject to repossession, so too are these impressive innards!
The action follows mid-21st century fox, Shilo (Alexa Vega, of Spy Kids fame), a genetically-infected teen who takes a taste of freedom in spite of her overprotective father's precautions, and runs with it. Even though Shilo is on a medication monitor and has a holographic GPS on her, her widowed dad (Anthony Head from Buffy The Vampire Slayer) can't be everywhere at once. Nathan is a medical man by day and a covert organ repo-man by night, so his dance card is pretty full.
Did I mention there's dancing? And singing? While Repo! The Genetic Opera is definitely the anti-Sweeney Todd (Bousman plays the genre fun and funky, as opposed to Burton's dour emo vibe), there will be inevitable comparisons between the two films thanks to the glorious grand guignol connection. In one scene, when Nathan is repossessing some poor sap's overdue organs, he gleefully makes a hand-puppet out the corpse while doing some fancy footwork and belting out about his "Thankless Job."
While the emotional core of the story centers on conflicted Nathan and his rebellious child, we are also invited to spend some quality time with Nathan's ne'er do well employer, GeneCo. The faces behind the big biz baddies are another motherless family, the Largos.
Rotti (Paul Sorvino, who treaded similar territory before in Baz Luhmann's Romeo + Juliet) is the pugnacious patriarch, who's just barely able to keep his trio of adult children in check as they run roughshod over the little people. Rotti's sons, Luigi and Pavi (Bill Moseley of Devil's Rejects note, and Nivek Ogre who's in the band Skinny Puppy), go through women like handi-wipes, while Rotti's little princess, Amber (Paris Hilton, of… well, Paris Hilton fame), chases after the local drug-lord, GraveRobber (Terrance Zdunich, who originated the stage play and co-wrote the script along with Darren Smith, who enjoys a frisky cameo in the film).
Amber, who changes her countenance constantly, believes that "Happiness is a Warm Scalpel" and that she can only find joy in the arms of a man her father finds reprehensible. During her never-ending pursuit of painlessness, Amber also rehearses for the Genetic Opera, a huge event and gala sponsored by her high-profile family and scorned by her lowdown lover.
The scary, yet tempting and charismatic, GraveRobber is one of the more intriguing characters in this already heavily-populated ensemble opus. As the main supplier of Zydrate — a fictional fluid extracted from the brains of corpses and said to have extreme opiate effects — GraveRobber knows the city, and its inhabitants, inside and out. He's the compass of the parable, and he brackets the action at the beginning and the end. He's sort of a Greek chorus of one.
There is also some back story fleshed out via comic book like graphical exposition; while it does explain things, it's not germane to the rest of the viewing experience and is unfortunately jolting at times. (Then again, if you can buy the basic premise of this purely peculiar and gory fantasy, you've already got the deed when you walk into the theater.)
There is yet another character of import, Blind Mag (played by Sarah Brightman, the former Mrs. Andrew Lloyd Webber, and a star in her own right). The beautiful, fragile and birdlike soprano has connections to both the Wallace and Largo families, not to mention a major part in the Genetic Opera.
The singing voices are thankfully as eclectic as the movie itself (Sorvino delivers his lines operatically, while Head belts them out rocker-style), but the acting is aces across the board. Bousman's direction is akin to an eight-in-hand stagecoach driver, or a juggler of chainsaws. It really is "sex, drugs, and opera."
Every actor shines, yet blends with the story. Not only is this by far Hilton's best role, she's actually got a grain of gravitas in the end. The entire Largo clan is excellently cast, but it's no mean feat when, in a horror/genre movie like this, we bloodthirsty sorts find ourselves actually rooting for the good guys. Head is an absolute standout, as he shows layers ranging from cavalier and callous, to caring and compassionate. When Blind Mag sings her swan song, even the hardest hearts will budge a bit.
That's not to say Repo! The Genetic Opera isn't indeed wild and crazy and over the top, but all the elements are cleverly contained. As you get swept up in the precarious premise, you may not notice that there's some real filmmaking going on: It's especially evident in an early scene involving Shilo, as she sings about being "Infected" by her genetics. It's emotionally engaging, augmented by gorgeous, smooth camera sweeps and inspired editing that helps each expression resonate. When all the characters converge during a big number called "At The Opera Tonight," the editing talents of Harvey Rosenstock once again arouse awe. Repo! The Genetic Opera not only sounds good, it looks amazing (already master of the clever segue from his stint on the Saw films, Bousman's eye is obviously only becoming more focused).
Speaking of focus, Repo! The Genetic Opera is the rare movie that actually compels you to concentrate, as you listen to the story unfold entirely through lyrics — it's really an opera, and there are only a few spoken words. It is not always an easy movie to watch, and is the kind that actually needs additional viewings in order to fully appreciate all its aspects.
It can't have been an easy story to tell, either — this cinematic alternate reality is the usual territory of quirky, visionary auteurs like Terry Gilliam or Baz Luhrmann — but Bousman's confidence is evident at every turn. It would have been far too tempting to let the inherent kitsch factor devolve into a world-class cheese fest of self-indulgence, but Bousman shows restraint ("restraint" as it applies to the medium) and lets the story and characters speak for themselves.
[Note: This is a first-blush review of an early cut. I will revisit the movie closer to its release date.]
= = =Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson