It’s not just a job it’s an adventure.
Repo Man is possibly one of the biggest underground cult hits of the 80s, regardless of genre. It was the first starring role for Emilio Estevez and really a bizarre film that is both shallow and deep at the same time.
The trailer doesn’t give the sense that this is a science fiction film at all, except for maybe the blinding flash of light that comes from a car trunk instantly vaporizing a guy. The title seems to suggest that the film is about someone who repossesses cars. There’s a couple scenes with Emilio Estevez’s character talking with his parents–who appear to be stoned hippies, and also with possibly a homeless man by a fire. The scenes from the film are punctuated by a punk rock soundtrack showing a map of parts of the southwestern United States. If you’re not already familiar with the film, the trailer does not do much to give any semblance of plot. But it does provide some of the weirdness that Repo Man has to offer.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
On a desert road somewhere in southeast California, a police officer pulls over a Chevy Malibu weaving all over the road. He asks to take a look in the trunk, and when he does a bright light vaporizes the officer, leaving only a pair of smoking boots. The car drives off. Otto (Emilio Estevez), a Los Angeles punk rock aficionado, quits his job at a grocery store, gets jilted by his girlfriend (for his best friend), and ignored by his parents. He wanders aimlessly around town one day when Repo Man Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) asks him to help drive a car for him. Otto decides to help out and they return the delinquent car to the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation where Otto is given $25 for his help.
Otto decides to take a job with the Repo team, becoming an apprentice to Bud, but also hanging out with Lite (Sy Richardson) and Miller (Tracey Walter). Bud gives him the “rules” of the profession which he calls the Repo Code, which he believes places them above normal people. While driving around the city, Bud and Otto encounter, and race, the Rodriguez Brothers, Lagarto and Napoleon (Del Zamora and Eddie Velez), another pair of unaffiliated Repo Men. Otto goes out on his own and encounters a young woman, Leila (Olivia Barash), running down the street so he offers her a ride. She shows him a picture of two weird looking things which she claims are dead aliens smuggled off a secret air force base by a scientist in her company, the United Fruitcake Outlet.
A mysterious group puts out a $20,000 bounty for the missing Chevy Malibu (which contains the aliens in the trunk). Oly (Tom Finnegan) the owner of Helping Hand finds this suspicious, and probably due to a drug related crime, as Otto is the only one to know about the aliens at this time. Otto spends some time on the job with Lite, who goes against almost everything in Bud’s code, such as discharging a weapon at the car owner. He’s also into a self help book called Dioretix, which uses the science of matter over mind. Later Otto spends some time with Miller, who is in charge of the lot and unable (and unwilling) to drive himself. He speaks of the Lattice of Coincidence and how UFO’s are really time machines ferrying people into the past.
The Chevy Malibu shows up in town and the Rodriguez brothers grab it when the driver, J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris) stops at a gas station. A trio of punks–Duke (Dick Rude), Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) and Archie (Miguel Sandoval), which are friends of Otto’s, are seen robbing liquor stores and a pharmaceutical business before stealing the Malibu from the Rodriguez Brothers, thinking it nothing more than a getaway car. Meanwhile, government agents led by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes) kidnap Leila and Otto to suggest they help get the car back to the rightful owners.
Parnell finds the trio of punks and tricks Archie into opening the trunk, where he is instantly vaporized while Duke and Debbi escape. Bud is fired after starting a fight with the Rodriguez Brothers and then gets mad at Otto for not backing him up. As Otto wanders around L.A. he sees the Malibu and flags it down, being introduced to Parnell, who has gone a little crazy. Parnell dies from radiation exposure from the aliens, so Otto leaves him on a bus bench, and returns the car to the impound lot, locking it up, where it is soon stolen. Otto and Bud go to get a drink at the local liquor store and observe a botched robbery by Debbi and Duke, where Duke is shot and Bud is injured. Otto comforts him as he dies, to which Duke thanks him.
After being captured and tortured by the government as to the whereabouts of the Malibu, Otto teams up with the Rodriguez Brothers and springs Bud from the hospital. He takes off in the Malibu, which happens to be in the hospital parking garage and now glows a sickly, irradiated green. They all return to the lot where Bud is shot by the government for the car, but no one can get close enough to it. Both agents in protective suits and a trio of holy men try to approach but burst into flames. Only Miller can get close to the car. He gestures for Otto to get in with him. The car floats into the air, zooms around the city like an airplane and then blasts into the heavens.
“Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations” – Bud
History in the Making
Repo Man is a quirky and strange, low budget film that has gained cult status since its release in 1984. It’s much less of a science-fiction film than many recent entries on Sci-Fi Saturdays, but as with the case for Liquid Sky, it’s a tangential sci-fi film. It was the first film for writer/director Alex Cox who would go on to write and direct the punk biopic, Sid and Nancy. It was also the second sci-fi film for producer Mike Nesmith (of the rock band The Monkees) after his 1982 entry Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann. It featured a relatively new and unknown cast, including a breakout role for Emilio Estevez. But top billing went to Harry Dean Stanton who genre fans would remember from such films as Alien (1979), and Escape From New York (1981). It also contained character actor Tracey Walter, who had appeared previously in Timerider.
It’s lack of strong ties to science-fiction make it all the more interesting. It has the feeling of an experimental or student film in its lack of strong plot or threads. It really is more of a character piece about the many different and strange people involved as repo men in Los Angeles, even though the MacGuffin with the alien corpses and the Malibu seem to take center stage. Instead the film seems to focus on interpersonal relations, conspiracy theories, and consumer culture. It is part apocalyptic fiction, part noir satire, and encompasses the sensibilities of the punk rock movement.
It’s hard to point to any specific thing in Repo Man and say that it was an influence for a later sci-fi film. If anything, there seems to be more connectivity with the films of Quentin Tarantino and his use of character driven dialogue than anything else. What it does do is provide another early 80s film that focuses on a societal subculture, injecting sci-fi elements into that scene, much like Liquid Sky, in this case punk rock instead of fashion. Outside of that the actual genre elements are slim, and not even well defined. The aliens, which look like water filled condoms with fishing lures attached to them, are mentioned as having been stolen from a top secret laboratory, which would seem to be why the government is looking to get them back. They also create a radioactive aura the longer they remain in the trunk, causing harm to those around them. But the aliens, and their existence is the lesser of the themes that film chooses to discuss.
What Repo Man chooses to focus on is the mistrust of authority figures, and a critique of consumer culture. Whereas many other films from the time were working product placements into their scenes, Repo Man goes the opposite direction and chooses to create an anti-product placement. The film’s use of generic groceries, white wrapped containers with a simple black stripe and large text indicating the product, are shown any time characters are eating or in a store. Starting with Otto stocking the shelves in the grocery store, inside the liquor store, and Otto’s parents home, generic groceries help show the amount of consumerism that makes its way into films, as well as shows how ingrained products are in every day life. By using these non-descript packages, the film takes a stance about the state of the American culture. With the focus on the punk subculture, the film speaks to a nihilistic sense of consumerism. Otto eats from a can labeled simply “food.” The quality and type is not important, just that it is sustenance of some kind. Coincidentally all the repo men are named after popular beers of the time, Bud, Miller, Oly and Lite, switching up commercialism and characterization in a bizarre way.
Additionally Repo Man also pokes a bit of fun at religion. Otto’s parents are two stoned hippies watching (and pledging money to) a televangelist, Reverend Larry. They seem enamored, or hypnotized, by his presence on television. He even shows up later to let television audiences know that a “sweet old lady” had her Chevy Malibu stolen, obviously a ploy by the government agents to get the word out to a broader audience. On the other end of the spectrum, Lite is a believer in Dioretix, a book about matter over mind–obviously a spoof of the L. Ron Hubbard book Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which was the beginnings of Scientology. The fact that the book talks about “matter over mind” is both a dig at religion and consumerism. Miller believes in space aliens ferrying people to the past, and Bud believes in his Repo Code. Otto, in true punk fashion, doesn’t really seem to believe in anything.
The youth oriented punk scene also informs the main characters take on authority figures, which is distrust. Starting with the grocery store manager who fires Otto, and then his stoned parents who send money promised to Otto, to a TV preacher instead. The film also continues and builds on the distrust of the government as seen in films of the period. Here it’s more of a farcical distrust, as the government agents don’t seem to be particularly brilliant, and probably more inept than in other more serious films. The agents all appear identical in suits, dark glasses, and earpieces exuding the look of being a generation apart from Otto and his friends.
However the sequence that explains what most of the film is about is probably the first meeting between Miller and Otto. Miller explains about the UFO’s and time machines, says that he doesn’t drive since that makes you less intelligent, and discusses the “lattice of coincidence.” That’s the conceit that if someone mentions something, such as a “plate of shrimp,” invariably you are more prone to notice plates, or shrimp or plates of shrimp. The film later shows a sign on a restaurant offering a “plate of shrimp.” He believes it’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness. But what Miller is really talking about is the lack of coincidence, or the coincidence of film. Since film is a finite series of moments, often filmic coincidence is trite and seems to be an obvious machination of the writers and filmmakers. Like when a character finds an object that is needed by another character, and then those two characters are forced to work together. Repo Man is filled with many such moments that some might find as lazy writing, but speaks towards the odder elements of reality. Coincidences in real life can come off as weird and magical, which is what Repo Man tries to portray.
The Science in The Fiction
The conspiracy angle that the film discusses seems much more advanced than other alien paranoia films from the 80s. For as wacky as Repo Man is, the government intrusion and alien plots are worthy of an X-Files episode. This film just uses more satire when depicting them. Leila works for a company called the United Fruitcake Outlet, obviously abbreviated as UFO. It seems to be a museum dedicated to aliens and the like, with employees who work to prove the existence of extraterrestrials. Leila is working hard to get the photo of the four dead aliens into the press. Later in the film, Otto sees the same picture in the newspaper, only it’s the tabloid paper, The Weekly World News, not the most reputable of papers. The thing is, for as crazy as any one of these elements might seem to an outside observer, nothing feels particularly outrageous in the context of the film. Maybe it’s because of the narrative structure, or the fact that Otto seems to not be shocked by anything he sees. When the car finally takes flight at the end of the film, that doesn’t seem that unexpected. It feels like the right answers to the unasked questions the film poses.
The Final Frontier
Who is the Repo Man? Obviously Otto fits the bill as his job is that of repo man. The other main characters of the film are also repo men. But is that really what the film is about? Maybe it has to do with the end of the film, where the radioactive Malibu is taken for a ride into the heavens. The aliens call the vehicle home (repossess it), maybe to retrieve their fallen comrades, or maybe to reward Otto and Miller for their service to the cause. Neither character is wrapped up in the trappings of society and as such could be viewed as more enlightened–at least as far as the other characters in the film are considered.
The film contains a very visceral soundtrack made up of punk music, including a kinetic title and closing theme written by none other than Iggy Pop. Additional artists on the soundtrack include the Henry Rollins led Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Suicidal Tendencies, to name a few.
Repo Man is a difficult film to talk about. It appears to be relatively simplistic, but there’s a lot of subtext and strange moments, odd characters and memorable lines that don’t appear to forward the story, yet together creates a whole film. If you’ve never seen the film, then hopefully this article provides some context for why a film about repo men is being reviewed on Sci-Fi Saturdays. It’s definitely worth at least one viewing.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.