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Dustin Putman

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Repo! The Genetic Opera  (2008)
2 Stars
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman.
Cast: Alexa Vega, Anthony Stewart Head, Sarah Brightman, Paul Sorvino, Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, Ogre, Terrance Zdunich, Sarah Power, Jessica Horn.
2008 – 97 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence and gore, language, some drug and sexual content).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 8, 2008.
Moviegoers who claim to not like musicals are a mystery to me. When chosen well, the melding of song (or score) and image within any genre can be about as powerful as the cinema gets. When dealing with a film that is primarily reliant on music to tell a story, there is an even better chance of magic happening. Thus, a musical that does not aptly exhilarate the viewer or generate fairly regular goosebumps has not sufficiently done its job. There's simply no two ways about it.

"Repo! The Genetic Opera" fails at doing this, and what a shame. For someone who has closely followed the production of this $8.5-million screen adaptation of the 2002 Off-Broadway stage show, and for someone who has also enjoyed the soundtrack, the film comes as an immense disappointment, not slick or fluid enough to compete with major studio musicals like 2001's "Moulin Rouge!" and 2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," and not catchy or purely fun enough to become a cult sensation like 1975's "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." The characters never become more than pawns in a plot, the emotional content of the story is muted, the music is wildly uneven and clunkily mixed together, and the murky aesthetics look like the budget was not high enough to buy lighting equipment. If I were Paul Sorvino (2004's "Mr. 3000") and had to act most of my scenes out in the confines of a dark room, I'd be too depressed to give the decidedly committed performance he delivers.

The year is 2056, and organ failure has become a national epidemic plaguing the population. For GeneCo CEO Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino), a cure is created wherein the ailing party is granted a transplant with the assumption that all bills will be paid in due time. When a patent is unable to pay, a Repo man comes to violently retrieve the organ. In this futuristic city that appears to be a cross between the one in 1982's "Blade Runner" and an actual imminent apocalypse, the resident Repo man is Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head), a widowed father who keeps his unsavory profession a secret from 17-year-old daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega), herself suffering from a rare blood disease. Using Nathan's guilt over the death of his wife as a weapon, Rotti puppet-masters Nathan, governing him for his own devices while trying to get a handle on his own three wayward grown children, the hot-tempered Luigi (Bill Moseley), the skin-masked Pavi (Ogre), and compulsive plastic surgery addict Amber Sweet (Paris Hilton). Meanwhile, Shilo yearns to experience the world outside the confines of her bedroom, and gets her wish when she meets Zydrate drug dealer GraveRobber (Terrance Zdunich) and discovers she has more in common with opera singer Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman) than meets the eye.

Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who headed an incarnation of the stage production and vowed to one day turn writer-creators Darren Smith's and Terrance Zdunich's brainchild into a motion picture, keeps his promise with "Repo! The Genetic Opera." Bousman earns major props by way of ambition and chutzpah, but to have these positive attributes is not always enough to achieve the outcome desired. For one, he stylistically is stuck in the mode of his previous efforts—2005's "Saw II," 2006's "Saw III," and 2007's "Saw IV"—and retains the same basic look and claustrophobic feel. Musicals, however, even ones as subjectively grim and gory as this, should be opened up, allowed to breathe, and be visually enticing. The conception of a grunge-infused metropolis works well in a few establishing shots of buildings and a gothic cemetery, but otherwise seems to be taking place on tiny, enveloping soundstages. The outside world, for example, consists of a small plot of tombstones and a few alleyways, and nighttime inexplicably lasts twenty-four hours each day. Exteriors are no better, looking dreary rather than atmospheric. The camera often shoots through what resembles a thin layer of dirt.

Told in true operatic fashion, the dialogue in "Repo! The Genetic Opera" is ninety-nine percent sung. Individual musical set-pieces are very hit-and-miss, hurt by a lack of coverage during filming and choppy editing that doesn't do justice to the actors' performances. Sometimes it is so dimly lit that the crooning cast's faces are hidden in blackness, and sometimes the songs are way too short and rushed to obtain satisfactory liftoff (i.e. third-act segue "At the Opera Tonight"). It does not help that the cinematography by Joseph White is flat and creatively lacking, reminiscent of Tim Burton's movies if he were tone-deaf. Amidst the anticlimaxes are a few winning numbers, most notably the electric "Seventeen" (wherein Shilo imagines herself a punk rocker with skeleton and teddy bear back-up dancers) and "Zydrate Anatomy," the latter by far the most memorable, rhythmic and rockin' song in the film. Where the movie really gets into trouble is in the regular conversational exchanges, also sung and so awkward that they could give viewers chills for all the wrong reasons. Time and time again, it sounds as if regular dialogue is being forced into lyrics, and it embarrassingly clangs together when uttered aloud.

If the film had more of a heart, Anthony Stewart Head (TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Alexa Vega (2004's "Sleepover") would be the centers of it as father and daughter Nathan and Shilo. Both have fine singing voices, and Vega also has the presence, attractiveness, and likeability to become a big star. What they don't have is a collective bond, not given enough material to build their relationship beyond the superficial. As Rotti, Paul Sorvino brings authority to his morally twisted role, and Paris Hilton (2008's "The Hottie and the Nottie") disappears into Amber Sweet and is virtually unrecognizable. Hilton's part—that of a young woman obsessed with surgically changing her face, destroying herself in the process—has a whole lot of potential that is only cursorily grazed over by the script.

As Rotti's sons Luigi and Pavi, Bill Moseley (2005's "The Devil's Rejects") can't sing, but he makes up for it in caffeinated quirkiness, and Ogre (band member of Skinny Puppy) is suitably freaky in the series of human faces his character screws onto his own. Terrance Zdunich reprises his stage role as GraveRobber and is an alluring standout, acting as guide over the ensuing mayhem. Finally, gifted recording artist Sarah Brightman (making her film debut) is certainly strong at both acting and music, but her Blind Mag stands separate from the rest of the ensemble, never quite gelling with the other subplots. Because of her poor handling, a climactic scene set at the Genetic Opera of the title is less tragic than a regrettable afterthought.

"Repo! The Genetic Opera" is admirable in that it diverges from the normal predictable cinematic experience, and the use of artistic comic book segments to fill in the gaps in the story is crafty. It is unfortunate, then, that the film is so rough around the edges and the filmmaking so spotty. "Repo! The Genetic Opera" is done in by a script in need of a rewrite, a soundtrack in need of more cohesion, and a budget too limited to achieve director Darren Lynn Bousman's technical demands. People may want to label this emotionally cold curiosity piece as a cult in the making, but such claims might be jumping the gun. The picture doesn't hold nearly enough charm for that, and the thought of repeat viewings sounds more like a chore than a temptation.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman