Repo! The Genetic Opera is a lot-of-movie stuffed in a very short runtime, and it opens fast and to the point, with a 2-minute comic book-style animation introducing us to the world and its major players.
The film takes place in a cyberpunk city in 2056 after an epidemic of organ failures causes massive loss of life and leads to megacorporation GeneCo’s take over, offering organ transplant loans and sending Repo Men to take the organs back (via extremely lethal and unsanitary means) when the recipients go into debt.
GeneCo is run by short-tempered tycoon Rotti Largo and society revolves around the commodity fetishism and hyperconsumption of GeneCo, such as the opera singer employed by Rotti, Blind Mag, and his three hedonistic children: Amber, who is addicted to surgery, and the painkiller Zydrate; Pavi, who wears flayed faces as masks; and Luigi, who is violently impulsive.
The film follows the intro animation by introducing us to Shilo Wallace, daughter of Repo Man Nathan, and the narrator, a graverobber who synthesizes Zydrate from corpses and performs regular surgery on Amber Largo. The film follows Shilo as she is manipulated by Rotti to become the heir to GeneCo and learns more about her family’s past and her connections to the Largo family and Blind Mag.
The visuals for Repo! are, by and large, fantastic, beautifully blending gothic horror and cyberpunk into what is essentially a 90-minute nu-metal music video.
The costumes and sets are fantastic, ranging from plague doctor to leather daddy and from massive cemeteries to towering neon skyscrapers. The film has a painstakingly well-developed atmosphere that wants to pull you into its world on the first viewing and has you detailing every prop in the background to figure out how the hell the art and costume departments pulled it off.
And they really did pull it off. From the get-go, the comic intro—although very pulpy in style—sets the gothic and punky mood for the film perfectly. The bloody animation prepares you for the gory gratuity of the rest of the movie and pulls artistic elements from alt-comics like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac or Tank Girl, which Repo! ties in with sparingly used and well-timed exposition comics throughout that tie the narrative together.
Beyond that, Repo!’s sprawling cityscapes and macabre mansions make extensive use of 2008 CGI, which they had the mind to blend into physical sets and practical effects with fog and dynamic lighting. The superbly made cemetery and the holographic portraits of the Wallace household is a perfect example of creating a suspension of disbelief every time a goofier use of plastic-y digital animation (like a blood spray or projection eyes) pops up.
As a musical, however, Repo! is a little less consistent. The soundtrack is composed by Darren Smith and produced by Yoshiki and comes across, for the most part, as very nu-metal and same-y. While there are some excellent standout sounds (like “Zydrate Anatomy” or “Chromaggia”), the score is brought down so much by the monotony of the nearly-non-stop music that some really good performances, most especially Sarah Brightman’s in “Chase the Morning,” are easily dismissed as feeling like a backing track for an Amy Lee biopic.
That said, however, the original soundtrack available to stream is paced and ordered much more smoothly, and outside of the context of a movie-watching experience, it is much easier to feel the varied influences Yoshiki was expertly balancing, from thrash and speed metal melodies to orchestral arrangements, which does help redeem the musical aspect of the film.
As well, despite its compelling atmosphere and visual charm, Repo! also gets caught up in its own tone. The movie ultimately wants to be a fusion of gothic horror and cyberpunk — a fusion which, visually, it absolutely nails. However, gothic horror and cyberpunk both carry certain themes which are ingrained in our cultural memory so deep stories feel incomplete without the expected outcomes and consequences that Repo! fails to deliver on.
When we see flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings in Event Horizon, the film prepares us for the prideful betrayal by Dr. Weir; likewise, the Largo business empire is essentially a haunted or disturbed ruler, invoking tropes of a decadent bourgeoisie, à la The Masque of the Red Death; however, after setting up Shilo as the crux of the climax, the person who will either take over or tear down GeneCo, the film just has Shilo exit the stage as Rotti’s children work together to rebuild the company.
Rather than being punished, as a lesson for humankind’s sinful nature as is so often the case with gothic fiction, feeling more like Marquis de Sade protagonists than Dorian Gray, and Nathan gets a redemption arc more befitting Manfred of The Castle of Otranto than the Jack the Ripper figure he represents.
Similarly, cyberpunk has always been, fundamentally, an anti-capitalist genre of fiction, which the movie teases but never indulges. We are shown the extent of the brutal poverty created by capitalism in decay, reducing what was presumably once a wealthy city in the imperial core into a corporate-owned municipality, policed by GeneCo employees, and filled with the dead and dying, but Repo! never shows an alternative, a better life, or a different story.
While this may be a remnant of cyberpunk’s failure, as a genre of fiction, to imagine a world after capitalism, all the built-up tension from Shilo’s murderous cop-father, the negligently wealth-hoarding habits of the Largo family, and the suffering of the proletarian people Repo! makes sure to highlight what feels like wasted potential. Nathan’s death is extremely frustrating and Amber’s rise to the top of GeneCo feels extremely cheap, which casts a bit of a shadow over the movie’s narrative.
While the grand themes fail to deliver any meaningful message or critique, Repo! The Genetic Opera is not a bad movie by any means. Repo! is a film adaptation of a relatively obscure horror musical directed by the mind behind the Saw sequels, and it is so much better than it has any right to be.
The visuals, from the CGI to the painted brick alley backgrounds, are absolutely amazing, the soundtrack is extremely well produced and feels like a wonderful stage adaptation of Slipknot (even if it could use fewer shouted choruses and more walls of sound to break up the barrage of musical plot-critical scenes), and the singing performances are fantastic. It probably won’t blow your mind, but it’s a hell of a gory and gaudy movie with one of the most unique and well-executed settings in recent film history, and definitely deserves a watch.