REVIEW: “Repo! The Genetic Opera”

I love a good, bad movie. Especially ones that aren’t trying to be bad. There’s something deeply enjoyable about a movie taking itself utterly seriously and being incredibly genuine with its material – especially when the results are probably not as objectively “good” as its creators might have intended. This is where Repo! The Genetic Opera enters. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a movie musical in the same vein as The Rocky Horror Picture Show – it’s a sci-fi musical made on a low budget that, in the years after its release, has found a cult following. And, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Repo! The Genetic Opera is just one of those films that have to be seen to be believed. It is all at once confusing, entertaining, delightful, baffling, and grotesque. It’s an experience to behold and it’s a film that I adore. (4 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: There are spoilers ahead.)

Repo! The Genetic Opera (written by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman)
In the mid-21st century, an epidemic of organ failures leads to the rise of GeneCo., a company providing transplants at a great price. Those who miss their payments become targets of GeneCo. mercenaries, who repossess the organs. In a world of drug addiction and legalized murder, a sheltered youth (Alexa Vega) seeks a cure for her rare disease as well as information about her family’s mysterious history. Her questions are answered at “The Genetic Opera.”

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (of Saw II-IV fame), Repo! The Genetic Opera is the story of Shilo (Alexa Vega), a young girl with a blood disease who finds herself at the center of a feud between Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head), her father and a secret Repo Man for GeneCo, and Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), the CEO of GeneCo (a company that specializes in organ replacements). It is a story about a young girl striving for freedom and seeking to find her place in the world. It is a story about corporate greed, feuding families, spoiled children, and drug-and-surgery addicts. And, most of all, it is an opera – but instead of traditional opera music, the score is comprised entirely of mid-2000’s-style rock music. And boy, do all of these elements make for a confused film.

The plot of Repo! is a royal mess. Rumor has it that about an hour of the film was cut from the original script, for one reason or another, and it shows. The plot, itself, is fairly simple but like any soap opera, the twists and turns in the personal relationships come quick and fast and it all becomes a bit hard to follow unless you’re paying extremely close attention. And, for the average moviegoer, Repo! is not the kind of film that will demand their rapt attention. You’re never entirely sure just what the film is trying to focus on – is it a story about Shilo’s quest for independence? Is it a story about Nathan’s failures as a father? Is it a familial drama between the Largo family? Essentially, the film is about all of those things and also none of them. The film’s first act simultaneously rushes through exposition while feeling like an endless pit of background information. There’s absolutely no sense of the passage of time throughout the film. The second act is so short that by the time the third act begins, you have no idea how the film is gonna manage to wrap up all of these plot threads by the end of its titular opera sequence. The film is the very definition of style over substance, prioritizing spectacle and shock value over any semblance of a coherent narrative. And that’s largely a reason why the film was panned upon its release. 

However, Repo! the Genetic Opera is a delightful movie in spite of all of that. It’s a baffling film to sit through, but that’s part of its charm. Plus, nobody who is watching Repo! these days is watching it for its plot. People enjoy this film because of its solid score, its bizarre atmosphere, and its wickedly enjoyable performances. Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith’s score is this strange blend of rock, opera, traditional musical theatre, and alternative music. It’s something that shouldn’t work – and yet, it does. It feels a bit like Rocky Horror Picture Show in its sheer audaciousness; the film was literally marketed as “not your grandparents’ opera.” Like an opera, the entirety of the film’s narrative is told through its music. Unlike an opera, many of Repo!’s songs stand on their own as memorable, well-written and performed songs. Sure, some of them are a bit too over-the-top and cringey and there’s a definite lack of stylistic cohesion, but many of the songs are absolute earworms that will be stuck in your head for days. “Zydrate Anatomy”, “Chase the Morning”, “Legal Assassin”, “Infected”, and “At the Opera Tonight” are great examples of the variety of musical styles found in the film. None of those songs sound alike, but all of them are great. 

Equally eclectic is the array of talent gathered for Repo!’s cast. I have no idea how Bousman managed to convince some of these actors to do this movie but thank God he did. I mean, how many films can say they have the girl from Spy Kids, Giles from Buffy, Paris Hilton, and Sarah Brightman in their cast? Remarkably, everyone in this film does a great job – including Paris Hilton. Everyone is fully committed to their characters and the film’s silliness and it shows. It’s impressive how well relatively new actors like Terrance Zdunich, Paris Hilton, and Ogre do when sharing the screen with the likes of Sarah Brightman, Anthony Stewart Head, and Paul Sorvino. Everyone in the film is perfectly cast and they are all bringing their A-games. Obvious standouts include Zdunich, Paul Sorvino, Anthony Head, Sarah Brightman, and Alexa Vega, but there is truly not a weak member of this cast. Half of the fun of Repo! is its music, and the way the narrative is told through it, and half of the fun is found in the film’s eclectic cast.

At the end of the day, Repo! The Genetic Opera is simply one of those films you have to experience. The plot makes no sense, but the visuals are seeped in this gothic-yet-futuristic atmosphere that draws you into the world in spite of the baffling plot. It looks and feels cheap, but that never stops any part of the film from reaching for the stars. The songs are catchy, memorable, and serve the narrative as well as you could hope for given the constraints of the film. The performances are strong and, fitting with the film’s overall tone of insanity, absolutely bonkers. The fact that this film manages to work at all is a testament to all who worked on it. So many elements of this movie just shouldn’t work – and, to be fair, many of them don’t. But much of the film does work, and it’s held together by this glue of passion and genuine respect for what’s trying to be accomplished. Repo! The Genetic Opera is a memorable experience not because it’s a terrible film but because it’s a seriously good one if you’re willing to meet it where it is.

4 out of 5 wands.

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