Repo Men’s Reactionary Message: The Enhanced Life is Not Worth Living
Repo Men is not a particularly good film and the premise is preposterous: The Union is the (sole) proprietor of life saving artificial organs (artiforges) that cost an exorbitant amount of money (which is not covered by insurance and must be financed through The Union) and if you can’t pay, The Union sends repo men out to (violently and fatally) repossess the artiforge. On face, Repo Men is a critique of private health care dolled up with sci-fi tropes and super gore. The plot points, characters, environment, and action sequences are so derivative you begin to treat them like a DJ mash-up, trying to guess which of your other favorite sci-fi films are being recycled. There is an Evil Corporation, named the Union, less interesting than District 9‘s Multinational United. The city is unabashedly drawn from Blade Runner and Minority Report. The plot is Equilibrium and District 9 with a bit of Brazil and Total Recall mind-bending thrown in to keep things spicy. Jude Law’s sympathetic bad-guy-gone-good, Remy, is likable whether he’s disemboweling delinquent payees or, later, his former coworkers. All the other characters are so flat and predictable I don’t remember their names, just the character cliche they played, like the troubled-but-beautiful-girl-who-converts-the-hero or evil-corporate-boss. It’s all been done before.
Yet, in a movie this unoriginal, there is a scene where a 9 year-old girl in a bright yellow sundress does a Tiger Woods fist-pump after successfully completing a backroom artificial knee surgery. Liev Schrieber (evil-corporate-boss) gets beaten up by Jude Law in a lung costume. One of the most gruesome fatalities (and there are many, many, many gruesome fatalities to choose from) involves an old-fashioned portable typewriter, gravity, and a human head. There is a compelling weirdness to this film that makes it impossible to disregard. It’s also quite enjoyable moment to moment, particularly for gore hounds. The gusto and gore that drive every action sequence translates into a morbid inventiveness usually reserved for Bond villains. Most astounding, is that drowning under gallons of blood and piles of artiforges (artificial organs)is something of a message. But it isn’t the "health care should be free!" picked out by most reviewers (including two of my faves, Annalee Newitz and Roger Ebert). What the hell is going on here if it isn’t a simple cry for public health care?
Beth, the girl who (unintentionally) convinces Remy to give up repo, might give an answer. Remy has one artificial organ, his heart. She has over ten: eyes, ears, voicebox, kidneys, liver, knee, and others. After explaining all her bits and pieces, she asks Remy to ask about her lips. "What about your lips?" Remy asks. "All me," Beth replies. Passion ensues. The "all me" of Beth’s lips implies that the rest of her, the artiforges, are not her. The organs are physically in her, but she has not mentally internalized them. She is split by the very things keeping her alive. Remy is the same way with his heart. Yet, in the world of the film, Remy and Beth are defined by their artificial organs. Remy has a change of heart about being a repo man only after he literally has his heart changed for an artiforge. It is the most over the top direct metaphor I have ever seen in a film, but it contradicts itself, because his emotiong only become "heart felt" once his heart is fake. The most… uh, intimate scene in the film involves Remy and Beth cutting into one another so they can directly scan each other’s organs. The director and writer can’t make up their minds. Are artiforges fake parts in a real person or are they the most definitive, real part of that person?
Oddly, life in the entire world of the film revolves around artiforges. The only people we meet in the film are either repo men, working for the Union, or they have past due artiforges. The airport has a scanner specifically for rogue artiforges, as if they don’t have better things to worry about. Not once in the whole film do we meet people who have successfully paid for their new organ and are living happily after what should have been a fatal accident. Not once do we see the impact of the enhancements Beth has, like telescopic vision and super hearing, on the world at large. Repo Men is set in a transhumanist world. There is a guy with a lifelike robotic arm and a "neural net" simulation system — not to mention the proliferation of artificial xenotransplants. Yet over and over the film hammers home the message that transhumanist technologies are not just dangerous, but that they will never be a part of you. Repo Men might have wanted to be a critique of privatized health care, if one can draw a deliberate message of any kind at all from the film, but the story told in almost every frame of the film is that if it’s not natural, then it’s not you: it’s false, a mirage, a fantasy. So what are we left with? For Repo Men, the answer is unclear. Your artiforges aren’t you, but you seem to be your artiforges. By that logic, a person with an artiforge is dehumanized, regardless of the system he or she is in, be it friendly, public health care or evil private. Enhancements generated by these new organs are superficial. Worse yet, the only way out of the system once caught in it is not to pay off one’s organ but to dive further into artifice. Remy’s character is connected to a neural-net simulation, and at the end of the film we discover that he has, in fact, been unconscious and fantasizing for almost half the film (a la Brazil). Repo Men is not a commentary on health care because the film is so incoherent it cannot offer a commentary on anything. Instead, what it expresses is the confusion and body horror of those who oppose many transhumanist technologies, like artificial organs and virtual reality. If part of you isn’t "real" then all of you isn’t "real" and you might as well just log off, be it mentally or mortally. It’s a crappy message from a film that’s fun to watch.