(In theatres, March 2010) In a generous mood, I would probably praise Repo Men for its satiric vision of a future where synthetic organ transplants are common and expensive enough to warrant repo men going around repossessing deadbeats, leaving them, well, dead on the floor. I would congratulate Jude Law, Liev Schreiber and Forrest Whittaker for thankless roles playing unsympathetic characters and Alice Braga for something like a breakthrough role. I would say something clever about the film’s forthright carnographic nature. I may even have something affable to say about Eric Garcia, who sort-of-adapted his own novel for the screen (the story, as described in the book’s afterword, is far more complicated) and wrote one of the most bitterly depressing movie ending in recent memory. Heck, I would point out the numerous undisguised references to Toronto (where the movie was shot): the inverted TTC sign, the Eaton center complete with Indigo bookstore, the streetcars, even the traffic lights and suburban streets. But I am not in a generous mood, because Repo Men is an unpleasant and defective attempt at a satirical action SF film that fails at most of what it attempts. The characters are unlikable, their actions are despicable, the chuckles are faint and the Saw-inspired gory violence isn’t warranted by anything looking like thematic depth. It is a literally viscerally repulsive film, and even trying to play along the grim sardonic humour gets increasingly difficult to swallow during self-congratulatory action sequences. Once the film’s none-too-serious credentials are established, it’s hard to care –and that includes a wannabe-romantic sequence in which internal organs are exposed and fondled. The ending wants to be witty, but it just feels absurd before it is revealed to be cheaply cynical. The Science Fictional elements don’t even fit together and the result is a big bloody bore. Instead, just give me another shot of Repo: The Genetic Opera!: at least that film knew how to balance arch seriousness with a sense of camp. The irony is that Garcia’s novel is actually quite a bit better than the film –don’t let the adaptation scare you from a novel that does what the film wanted to do in a far more palatable fashion.
Harper, 2010 movie tie-in reprint of 2009 original, 328 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-06-171304-0
Repo Men can be said to be a dark satire about the flesh and the inner rot of hyper-capitalism, but looking at its movie adaptation and then at the source novel, I can’t help but see both versions of the story as being about tone, the slippery literalization of metaphors and how easy it is to ruin a story by telling it badly. Because even though the novel and the movie share the same creator, (many of) the same characters and (many of) the same plot beats, I hated the film and thought the novel was an enjoyable piece of work. How did that happen?
First, the commonalities: In a not-too-distant future, artificial organs have become reliable and sophisticated enough that people don’t make much of a fuss in getting rid of their natural internals and getting better ones. There’s a catch, of course: said organs are so expensive that they require financing, and if ever you don’t pay, well, the financing company feels completely justified in ripping them out of you.
(Yes, this is a very similar premise to Repo! The Genetic Opera, which has clear antecedents over Repo Men in having been an off-Broadway play about a decade ago. But then again, there are examples of that idea in a number of older SF stories, so let’s stop claiming idea paternity. High concepts aren’t unique diamonds that can be discovered once and thereafter only stolen: Writers can come to the same conclusion from different sources of inspiration, and as this review will keep hammering home, it’s all in the execution rather than the premise.)
It’s not difficult to come up with a few objections to the organ-ripping nonsense: There’s the slight issue of murdering people by removing their innards that defies a bit of common sense even in a satirical future. But here’s one crucial difference between novel and movie: Whereas the novel can gloss over the messy business of organ extraction with a few wry sentences and allusions, the director of the film felt it necessary to show the removal in all of its glistening gory glory, along with a smirking narration that felt more psychopathological than amusing. That’s one way to turn off an audience in less than five minutes and never get them back.
Prose, for all of its deficient audio-visual qualities, is actually quite a bit better at presenting satire, context, justification and depth. So it is that even after disliking Repo Men quite a bit, I found myself enjoying Garcia’s novel even as it covered the same ground as the film, except with quite a bit more detail and a number of significant changes to the third act.
(It would be handy to criticize the film for being a ham-fisted hack-and-slash job on the novel, but the real story, as revealed in the movie tie-in edition’s afterword of the novel, is more a case of parallel development. This being said, I suspect that films become worse when they’re developed over years of studio interference, whereas novels can only benefit from their writer’s sustained vision. Still, it is surprising to find out that the film is quite a bit darker in its ending than the book. This may be a first.)
Readers coming at Garcia’s novel without preconceptions will find an energetic, tangentially-told dark satire. The narrator’s story keeps looping back to his marriages, his war experiences, his anecdotes as a Repo Man, the events that have landed him in such a desperate situation, and what happens after that. Happily, this isn’t a confusing novel even as it hops all over the entire life of its main character: the narration is crisp, the voice of the narrator is enjoyable and the reading experience is top-notch. As Science Fiction, the details don’t quite make sense (which is to be expected from a satirical novel by a writer seen as working from outside the genre), but this isn’t quite enough to harm Repo Men’s odd charm.
The lesson may be that I’m a far more lenient reader than a viewer: Perhaps I’m more patient with dense novels than simple movies. But perhaps it’s also a lesson in how too much is too much, how a dark smile works better in written fiction than on a screen where there’s little wiggle room left to imagination. But the result is the same: Eric Garcia may have scripted the adaptation of his own novel, but the book is clearly the winner here. At the very least, it’s got all of its original guts.
(In theaters, September 2003) Yet another con man film at a time where we’ve seen a number of them in recent months. But even though, yes, there is a con both on the characters and on the audience, the heart of the film is more of a character study, starring Nicolas Cage in another deeply neurotic performance. Matchstick Men is a story of how conning is affecting the protagonist, and how he’s able to come to a point where he’s able to kick the habit (sort of) and become a better person. Director Ridley Scott once again throws just about everything he’s got on the screen in the hope that some of it will stick and the result, as may be expected, is very uneven. Some of Cage’s antics are annoying, but as usual he’s never as good as when he’s foaming with rage. (Just wait until late in the film). It’s not a particularly deep film, but there’s a twist, a few good scenes, and high-grade production values that are seldom uninteresting. It’s not flashy, but it does the job. Some will have a problem with the happy ending (which reportedly wasn’t to be found in Eric Garcia’s original novel), but it fits with the overall thrust of the movie, which is the story of a man who happens to be a criminal and not the story of a criminal per se.
Villard, 2000, 276 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-375-50326-9
If you’ve been searching for a deliciously original piece of fiction, look no further than Eric Garcia’s Anonymous Rex. Easily one of the freshest novel I’ve read in a while, this is a book that lures readers with a delicious mixture of classical gumshoe prose and an off-beat twist on the usual. Then it keeps them flipping the pages with a sustained rhythm. What more could we ask for?
Part of the appeal of Garcia’s first novel is how, on the surface, protagonist Vincent Rubio is virtually indistinguishable from prototypical down-on-his-luck Private Investigator so beloved of mystery fiction. He used to be a hot shot, but then his partner got killed, he developed a serious substance abuse problem and went on a violent bender. Now he’s broke, his name is mud and no one wants to even talk to him save for the debt collectors —and even those aren’t terribly interested in idle talk. No, nothing revolutionary here so far.
Same thing with the plot, which involves Rubio’s old boss handing over an investigation to our unfortunate protagonist. A sombre arson affair, which our hero has to untangle because no one else wants to do it. The classic elements follow: the witnesses, the diseased, the secret, the wife, the mistress, the affairs, the wealth, the hired thugs and the casual assassination of informers. Even the late slide of the narrative in science-fiction isn’t terribly new when considering that the same shtick’s been attempted by just about every SF writer trying to break in the mystery genre. (See Walter Jon William’s excellent Day of Atonement, etc.)
No, the real find of Anonymous Rex is that it presupposes that our protagonist is… a dinosaur. And so is a sizable proportion of humans living on planet Earth today.
No, not metaphorical we-loved-the-fifties arch-conservative dinosaurs, but the literal stuff of the fossil record: T-Rex, Velociraptor, Brontosaur, Stegosaurus and the rest of the gang. Thanks to elaborate costumes, strong species discipline and the influence of a hilariously inept system of “Councils”, dinosaurs live among us, participate in society, own most of the nightclubs, love the mind-altering effects of aromatic herbs and try their best not to prey on puny humans. (They also presumably enjoy palaeontologist trade publications)
It’s a concept that could be described as unusual (or “zany”, should you be of the less imaginative sort), and which could have very well been amusing for a chapter and a half before starting to recycle its own cleverness. But there’s no reason to worry; Garcia’s dino-universe is well-stocked with interesting new surprises and sufficiently fast-paced to keep us interested even when he’s not busy exploring the social customs and quirks of modern-day sapient lizards.
Among many other fine qualities, Anonymous Rex is generous enough to allow the reader to follow along with the mystery, being neither too obscure or too simple. Rubio is a sympathetic protagonist (he’s a Raptor who could eat you for lunch, sure, but then again he’s meddling with dinos who could eat him for lunch!) The writing is brisk, but also loaded with fine descriptions and dialogue that would make any hard-boiled novelist proud by association. This is a clever novel that’s pure fun from beginning to end; don’t be surprised to find yourself reading it late at night.
The gumshoe mystery has been exploited in fantastic ways for a while, by virtue of well-established genre conventions that are easy to subvert. (even forgetting about the countless genre SF and Fantasy novels with a mystery template, one could easily recall Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music and the original Who Censored Roger Rabbit?) Anonymous Rex is another fine entry in this offbeat vein, a wonderful little book that is well-worth your time and attention. Don’t miss it, especially if you’re looking for something endearingly different.