The Biopunk Reader

11Dec/111

Repo! The Genetic Opera: The Biopunk-Rock Musical Mashup of the Century

by Heather Massey


Regarding Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), I’m going to strive for an informative, insightful approach in my post about this uniquely flavored and indelible film. But first,

OMGThisfilmistotallyrighteousyoushoulddropeverythingrightnowandwatchitOMG!

Repo! The Genetic Opera is a wild, eclectic mix of biopunk and rock opera. That’s right, a biopunk rock opera! Allow me to fill you in on its humble beginnings.

Beginning in 1996, Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich collaborated on a story called “The Necromerchant’s Debt.” It was inspired by true events, namely, a bankrupt friend of Smith’s who was losing his possessions through foreclosure. The eventual play, about a future where body parts are repossessed, debuted in Los Angeles.

Spurred on by the play’s success, the creators leveraged “The Necromerchant’s Debt” into a film. Repo! The Genetic Opera features songs composed by Smith and Zdunich, who also wrote the screenplay. Saw II director Darren Lynn Bousman helmed the project. Lionsgate (home of the Saw franchise) released the film in 2008. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the studio apparently did little to promote it.

What, no mainstream love for biopunk? For shame! I’ll help the filmmakers out here and help you add to your future Halloween film fests.

Short synopsis: In the near future, a world-wide epidemic of organ failure threatens humanity. Biotech company GeneCo swooped in to monetize the organ vacuum. Need your organ replaced? Call GeneCo! The company makes its profit through its organ transplant services. To ease the pain of such procedures, GeneCo created Zydrate, an addictive substance harvested from the brains of corpses. The catch is that if you can’t pay up, they’ll sic the sadistic Repo Man on you to repossess your organ(s). Not your average walk in the park, that’s for sure!

The story centers on the plight of Shilo Wallace (Alex Vega), a 17-year-old young woman who suffers from a rare blood disease. Her father, Nathan Wallace—played by Anthony Head, Buffy’s Giles—keeps her practically a prisoner in his attempt to keep her safe—not only from GeneCo, but from his own secret identity.

Feast your eyes on the theatrical trailer:

That’s just a taste of the psychedelic eye-popping adventure that awaits you. However, before you shell out your hard-earned money, there are a few things you should know going in.


Repo! The Genetic Opera has a number of flaws. Only a handful of the record-breaking 64 musical numbers stand out—not a good percentage considering what a significant part the songs play in the film. You’ll be hard-pressed to hum any of the tunes after seeing it.

Plus, the pacing drags and the story is repetitive in places. For example, occasionally a scene of exposition is followed by a musical number that essentially conveys the same information. Part of this could be attributed to the low budget and reusing the same sets, but some more judicious editing could have helped in this area. The plot isn’t as coherent as it could (and should) be.

Still, pulling off such apparently disparate elements such as biopunk, near future SF, rock opera, an ensemble cast, and the dizzying array of neo-industrial goth costume designs and doing it successfully would be challenging for anyone. This film somehow became more than the sum of its parts. Despite the flaws, I was riveted.

Repo! is hardly the new Rocky Horror Picture Show, or even Shock Treatment for that matter, but it tries really, really hard. The filmmakers strove to create something fresh and inventive as opposed to the same old, same old mediocre meh. And in a world replete with vanilla romcoms and toothless horror films, that’s saying something.

An interesting, but flawed creative experiment is still…well, interesting.


One of the film’s highlights—and a worthy reason alone for seeing Repo! The Genetic Opera—involves Blind Mag (Sarah Brightman), GeneCo’s pop-singer icon. Her scene with Shilo during the “Chase the Morning” sequence best captures the film’s otherworldly maniacal mashup spirit. I’ve watched many films in my time, from mainstream to niche to 100% obscure, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that scene. It hints at a fantastical (and fantastic!) cybernetic/biogenetic invention that in and of itself would make a great basis for a story.

So take a chance. Notch your SF/F viewing belt with this imperfect, but risk-taking film.

Bio:

Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express.

She’s also an author: Her latest sci-fi romance is Queenie’s Brigade (Red Sage Publishing). To learn more about her work, visit www.heathermassey.com.

24Oct/110

Rap for the Biopunk Era: B. Dolan Drops a Few Thoughts on the SF/Hip Hop Ultimate Alliance

by Wyatt Matthews

When we look into Hip Hop's roots, twisted among the cables and mic chords, there has always been a mass of arteries shoved up in there that link to science fiction. It's a contorted kinship that is often overlooked.

In the '80s in particular, the cross-fertilization of shared themes and modes between the two cultures was probably more obvious than it is now. The very seeds of Hip Hop had a cosmic lacquer, from the out-of-this-world stylings of George Clinton to b-boys doing the non-ironic robot. In the '80s, we heard William Gibson noting that DJing was a form of hacking, and that urban music was sharing frequencies with the cyberpunk movement.

But, what about now, in the post-cyberpunk era? Who's dropping the biotech beats? I asked B. Dolan, Providence-based rapper and spoken word artist whose art marches through both domains, to shed some light on the crossroads of Hip Hop and SF.

TBR: In general, what kind of media did you digest while you were growing up and developing as an artist that gave you an affinity for/tolerance for science fiction topics? Where do biopunk themes come in, if at all?

BD: I insatiably digested all kinds of media from a really young age, like it was the only thing that mattered in life. In retrospect it was a really strange way for a kid to be. I was obsessed with the escapism that books, music and movies offered. Not just from my home situation, but from the way everyone around me thought about the world and life. Ultimately too, I think I was obsessed with escaping death.

I read lots of religious texts. The Tao te ching, Gnostic scriptures, Thomas Aquinas, whatever the hell I could find. I had a copy of the I Ching I would treat like a magic 8 ball. I also found out about Nietzsche and he fucked up a good part of my childhood.

At the same time, I was staying current with any comic book series I could get my hands on. The Mighty Thor, Batman, and X-Men were my shit.

I never cared about science fiction until I discovered Philip K. Dick, and he instantly became one of my favorite writers. The first book I read was VALIS, which basically combined elements of everything I’ve listed above. The combination and balance of storytelling and ideas were absolutely perfect, and the unhinged kind of mania he wrote with appealed to my own obsessive brain.

So, the long way around that question is that comic books probably paved the way. After that PKD made me understand what the genre of science fiction was really about and capable of, and why that mattered.

TBR: Why do you think Hip Hop so frequently interfaces with science fiction?

BD: I think there’s a very direct link between hip hop and comic books/dime store fiction of all kinds, including Sci-fi. They were the two things I bought with my own money from a young age, and usually in the same store. In a lot of cases I can remember the book I read in combination with the tape I was wearing out while reading it.

There’s a deeper link also in that both sci-fi and rap were discounted artforms. Rap wasn’t “serious” music, and science fiction wasn’t “serious” literature. They were both outsider cultures, seen as ‘low brow’ by established industries, and they were both about escapism to an extent. I think for that reason they wound up in the same kids hands for years. Maybe they still do.

TBR: In your opinion, if there were a master list--like the Western Cannon for SF Hip Hop--what would be on it? (…and what might get left out–either deservedly or undeservedly?)

BD: Kool Keith would probably be one of the first names in a lot of people’s mind there. He sort of did with sci-fi what the Wu-Tang did with kung-fu. Between the use of certain samples, sounds and slang he was able to extend the metaphor and make himself into a character telling a familiar story in a unique way.

El-P would be an important emcee to mention, because he took it farther than just adopting some space rap imagery like a lot of rappers did. With El-P you can hear a whole dystopian sci-fi aesthetic embedded in the construction of lines, beats, and the lens he views current events through. So he’d be an important part of the Cannon for sure.

Rammellzee is the next name that comes immediately to mind. Sadly he might be “undeservedly left out” because he’s not on as many people’s radar. Still, he was as important as he was incredible. His ideas and output are both really brilliant and really futurist. You can’t study hip hop and sci-fi without Rammellzee. He also connects futurism in rap to people like Sun-Ra who came before it.

DJ Q-Bert’s “Wave Twisters” album is great futurist hip hop, and highlights the turntable as a sci-fi instrument maybe better than any other.

I’m sure that’s another reason rap is related to sci-fi; that our instruments all felt so futuristic at the time. I do remember a sense of playing with big banks of glowing buttons and making music that sounded like something out of a Sci-Fi movie… Feeling like a spaceman. Granted it wasn’t the beginning of electronic music, but it was the first time those electronics were within the price range of working class people.

Christ these questions are making me think. Haha. Well done. There’s a lot of names to add to this list. It probably begins with songs like Afrika Bambatta’s “Planet Rock” and MC Shan’s “MC Space”, continues through songs like “Releasing Hypnotical Gases” by Organized Konfusion, groups like The Infesticons and even albums like Sole’s last record, which had great dystopian, progressive material on it.

Things like Wayne and Kanye’s use of Autotune are probably also related, which goes back to Roger Troutman and his talkbox, and the way that became part of the West Coast sound at a certain point…

Now I know I’ve forgotten something massive. I’m sure of it. Anxiety sets in.

TBR: SF can be a lot of things: modern myth, an avenue for escapism, a tool for social criticism…. What’s your take on SF? In what ways has it become an element in your own work?

BD: I think the surrealism of sci-fi is very present in a lot of my stuff. Songs like “Joan of Arcadia” and “Earthmovers” certainly have an other-worldly, dark future feel to them that comes from that place. In terms of modern myths, “The Reptilian Agenda” would certainly be classified as that or as Sci-Fi by some.

All of those examples involve social criticism as well, and sci-fi is a great tool for that. I like the slippery dream logic that happens in sci-fi stories, and that’s something I’ve made good use of in both my writing and performance.

“The Failure” is also a dark future story about the last man on earth in a fallout shelter, and the things he’d record before he died. I don’t have much use for escapism, oddly enough, but everything else from the genre tends to inform the way I write. I guess that original spark of escapism is what keeps me making music in the first place though.

TBR: Some critics claim that SF is a “super genre” in that it cross-breads and codeshares with other genres more easily. Is there something similarly super about Hip Hop?

BD: I think so. But that’s also any genre, isn’t it? That process seems to be going on everywhere all the time. It’s obvious in hip hop because of sampling, but good artists are always being influenced and inspired and pushing the boundaries of their genre. My guess would be that the internet and the ease with which information is shared will send that process into hyperdrive in the next generation, as all genres meld into one universal mega-music, which will sound like Balinese Gamelan being played on a galaxaphone.

*Many, many thanks to B. Dolan for his insights. He comes to us courtesy of Strange Famous Records.