Repo! The Genetic Opera clearly strives to defy description, which of course makes it fun to describe: It's a futuristic rock musical about organ repossession from the director of Saws II through IV, starring Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Paul Sorvino, and Paris Hilton. But it's also surprisingly fun to sit down and watch, provided you're in the mood for a low-budget musical that swings for the fences rather than Oscar glory.
In the year 2056, Rotti Largo (Sorvino) heads up GeneCo, which offers financing options for organ transplants (both medical and cosmetic), and has no qualms about a gory repossession if a buyer misses a payment. Scientist Nathan (Anthony Stewart Head) moonlights as one such repo man while caring for his sick daughter Shilo (Alexa Vega from the Spy Kids movies), who yearns to break free from the confines of her bedroom. Complicated backstories are illustrated, literally, via half-animated comics-style panels.
Though the comic-book moments highlight the story's sci-fi, horror, and gothic fantasy influences, the movie really is a rock opera, in that approximately 80 percent of the dialogue is sung. This, in combination with some middling songwriting, makes a lot of the music run together in a blur of speak-singing glam-rock pastiches. Occasionally a hook pokes through the cacophony and a set piece stands out: Vega has a fairly showstopping punk number in her bedroom, with bopping stuffed animals in the background and the delightfully inexplicable sudden appearance of Joan Jett. It helps that the cast mostly really can sing, minus any operatic (or American Idol-izing) flourishes; Head has a Bowiesque mixture of detachment and anguish, Vega could keep up with any number of teen-poppers, and professional vocalist Sarah Brightman appears as the opera star of the future, complete with bionic eyes.
The movie keeps throwing out stuff like that, which is what gives us Paris Hilton as one of three squabbling GeneCo heirs, less murderous than her brothers but tragically addicted to plastic surgery (in a less musical showstopper -- spoiler alert! -- her face falls off). A surprising amount of this semi-satiric camp stuff works, at least for an accumulating number of fleeting moments. Director Darren Lynn Bousman lacks the mastery of, say, Baz Luhrmann, who introduced wild cutting into his postmodern musical only to tame it beautifully, but he at least displays an ability to step back from the Saw house style. Repo still has a lot of grotesque hysteria, but it's far less histrionic despite its ridiculous scope, and even the gore and cheap special effects are zestier than his out-and-out horror movies.
Adapted by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich from their stage play, the script doesn't slow down enough to make any real emotional impact (or hardly any songs outside of a standard thumping tempo), and it only sort of takes advantage of the elbow room offered by the movie screen (there are lots of computer-generated establishing shots of a future city we don't spend much time exploring). But the filmmakers' confidence in their semi-disposable material is infectious, and the spirit is strangely genuine; Repo! is a campy made-for-cult item we can trust, at least for 90 minutes or so.
I'm not gonna pay a lot for this muffler!