Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Repo Opera

They say it's impossible to engineer a cult classic, and in a way "they" are right. The classic example of this is Shock Treatment, the disastrous sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show. That said, I saw Repo! The Genetic Opera this past Thursday, and it may have succeeded where others failed. Or, at least, it is what a cult classic should be: completely over-the-top and extremely appealing to a very small group. For me, the presence of Anthony Stewart Head was enough to bring me out, though the more I learned about the film the more excited I was. The sci-fi plot, the dystopian sets, and the over-the-top costumes, add up to make a really fun movie.

I had wondered why Kansas City, not the biggest market, was playing this movie when, say, Boston wasn't. As it turns out the director, Darren Lynn Bousman, is from the area. His parents, his eighth grade drama teacher (who he cites as his inspiration for casting him in Jesus Christ Superstar led to his interest in rock operas), and several friends were there, which contributed to the sold-out audience. Bousman is best known for directing Saws II-IV. These films are part of what are sometimes criticised as being "torture porn," so called because they create flimsy plot lines as excuses to show extremely graphic violence. While the first Saw film is seen as the start of this newest incarnation of the trend (although I recently heard a film critic cite Passion of the Christ, which came out months earlier, as starting the trend), the tradition of extreme graphic violence goes back decades. 

Personally, such movies don't interest me, and I haven't seen any of the Saw movies, or either Hostel. Some would characterize this movie as being in that tradition, but I would disagree. Yes, there are several scenes which involve the "repossession" of GeneCo organs from a live person, but there is always warning and they are often played for laughs. It isn't by any stretch of the imagination a horror movie. Indeed, the lack of horror the characters exhibit at the gruesome killings (except, of course, the victims) is part of the point. 

Which brings me to my next point, which has been all but overlooked. I think the movie deals with some really interesting issues. It's not preachy, but it raises some real question about our consumer society. It isn't that hard to imagine a future where elective transplant surgery becomes the new trend. And when the Repo Man sings (as he's cutting up a living person) "It's a thankless job / but somebody's got to do it / ... / No one ever thanks me when I'm done / How self-absorbed people can be," I was reminded of an interview I heard with the workers who assembled the toxic Katrina trailers complaining that no one thanked them for their work.

Another great theme is Shilo's (arguably the protagonist) struggle with her genetics, and whether or not they determine her fate. In a way, genetics are the modern scientific incarnation of fate, and Shilo must struggle against her genetics and her fate.

Good science fiction isn't about the future, it's about the present. Orson Wells' War of the Worlds wasn't about aliens invading, it was about the tensions in Europe building towards war. Similarly, Repo is about the way in which marketing and industry have invaded every part of our lives. It succeeds and in that way is the best of the genre.

I guess what I probably like most about this film is how post-genreic it is (I invented a term). It is a rock opera, in that the music never stops, but the music isn't always rock. Some of it is really operatic, some of it is various genres of rock, and some of it is more show-tuney. And while the setting is science fiction, the plot is more evocative of the soap operas that are the genetic opera's predecessor. And the back stories are told via graphic novel style cuts. It all fits together nicely.

In conclusion, ask your local indie theater owner to bring Repo! The Genetic Opera to town, and when she does, go see it. I think you'll actually enjoy the show.

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