Anyone intent on reviving the rock opera, that most misbegotten of pop-music genres, should consider two things. The first would be, don’t do it. The second, if one were determined to do it anyway, would be the need for songs — brief musical compositions of sufficient sturdiness to ensure that they won’t be forgotten while they’re still being sung. With “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” director Darren Lynn Bousman has ignored the first of these precepts; and his songwriting collaborators, Terrance Zdunich and Darren Smith, haven’t been especially successful in observing the second. The result is a work that stirs retrospective appreciation of the mock-bombastic Meat Loaf. Meat Loaf, you’ll recall, had songs.
The movie has metastasized from a 2002 stage play written by Zdunich and Smith and directed by Bousman. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world in which millions have died in an epidemic of organ failures, and a biotech company called Geneco has arisen to sell transplantable organs to needy survivors — and to repossess the pricey innards whenever the owners fall behind in their payments. The scalpel-wielding characters who carry out these grisly interventions are called repo men. One of them is secretly a doctor named Nathan Wallace (Anthony Head, of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” TV series), who’s been forced into this vile sideline by Geneco founder Rotti Largo (Paul Sorvino). Largo is terminally ill, and determined not to let his lucrative organ business pass into the hands of his good-for-nothing children (one of them played by Skinny Puppy frontman Ogre; another, with unwarranted enthusiasm, by Paris Hilton ). Instead, he wants to bequeath his empire to Wallace’s daughter, Shiloh (Alexa Vega, of the “Spy Kids” films), because her late mother was, as he sings in a characteristically tuneless interlude, “once very dear to me.” The plot thickens like a week-old blood pudding.
The movie’s art direction (by Anthony A. Ianni) and production design (by David Hackl — like Ianni and Bousman, a veteran of the “Saw” movies) are deliriously flamboyant. The city in which the story is set is dank and tainted, shrouded in endless night. The lighting leans heavily toward a super-saturated blue, the characters skulk about through a fog of halation, and the visual quality in general is pure Polaroid. Wardrobe designs are goth, of course — lots of black-leather S&M gear, with mascara and lipstick all around — and the city itself is a lurid digital chowder of grim streets and dark graveyards spread out in the shadow of the towering Geneco headquarters. All of this might have been fun, sort of, were it not for the grinding metal guitar-riffery upon which — this being a rock opera — the characters’ every word must be conveyed.
Thirty years after “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” there’s nothing shocking about the third-hand decadence on display here. What really startles are some of the unexpected performers lunging around in the murk. What could Sorvino have been thinking as he blustered through the din, trailed by a long gray ponytail, belting out lyrics like “Maggots, vermin — you want the world for nothing!” And how did actual singer Sarah Brightman — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s onetime wife and muse — feel about being tricked out as some sort of pop-eyed Elvira puppet? The songs aren’t uniformly dreadful — one of them, “Seventeen,” is a lively arena-punk anthem that Vega delivers with near Avril Lavigne-level energy — but the tunes are largely formless, and many of the lyrics have the flat quality of words that should have been simply spoken, not sung. (“Didn’t I tell you not to go out?” Wallace bellows at his sheltered daughter, in response to which she warbles, “You did! You did!”) The picture runs just 98 minutes, but it already feels too long three-quarters of the way in. It feels unnecessary from the beginning.
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