Cinema and Media Studies Repo Man
by
D. Harlan Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0295

Introduction

Repo Man (written and directed by Alex Cox, Edge City/Universal, 1984) is among the most renowned cult films of the 1980s, and it resonated with fans as well as critics. A low-budget work of soft, fringe science fiction informed by punk and pop culture of the era, it was the first feature film made by the veteran auteur Alex Cox, and it is the title most frequently associated with his oeuvre. Cox was born and raised in England. He went to film school in the late 1970s at UCLA, where he received a MFA degree and wrote the screenplay for Repo Man. To fund the film, he formed Edge City Productions with the support of ex-Monkees band member Michael Nesmith, who convinced Universal Studios to back it. This was no small feat, considering Repo Man’s eccentricity, decadence, and grittiness, which prompted befuddled Universal executives to yank the film from theaters (effectively repossessing it) only one week after its release. Featuring a mélange of punk rock bands, the soundtrack sold well and grew in popularity, so Universal decided to re-release it six months later, and the film generated a buzz on big screens and thereafter on the video market as a VHS tape. The bildungsroman plot about a young, disaffected, dazed-and-confused suburbanite, Otto, coming of age under the tutelage of a prodigal father figure, Bud, who shows his makeshift son how to be a (repo) man, is subsidiary to the bricolage of minor details (both imagistic and rhetorical) and subplots that catalyze the diegesis. The dominant subplot is self-aware shlock and involves a rogue nuclear physicist, Dr. J. Frank Parnell. Pursued by the CIA, Parnell absconds in a 1964 Chevy Malibu with a mysterious payload in the trunk that may or may not be extraterrestrials (we never see what’s inside), and that disintegrates anybody exposed to it. This axial, absurdist MacGuffin was appropriated by Cox from the briefcase in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), which was later reappropriated by Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (1994), and it is complemented by a host of other absurdities and semi-surreal diversions. Collectively, these characteristics render Repo Man a fluid postmodern pastiche that celebrates a variety of cinematic and genre tropes while making political and social commentary on the 1980s. Incorporating the cultural modes of punk, science fiction, Blaxploitation, teen comedy, the conspiracy thriller, the spaghetti western, and road and action movies, the film continues to pique fans and scholars of cult cinema, spawning numerous spinoffs and “nonsequels” by Cox and other filmmakers.

Reference Material

There are no monographs or book-length studies on Repo Man, and compared to some other cult films, scholarship is relatively limited beyond minor essays, reviews, and interviews with the director. In studies of cult cinema and best-of anthologies, Repo Man is often mentioned in the same breath as fellow science-fictional B-movies Liquid Sky (1982), The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and They Live (1988), the latter two because of its political and alien(ated) crosscurrents, and Liquid Sky because of its engagement with music and the punk scene. Repo Man is typically analyzed or invoked under the umbrella of cult cinema, science fiction, pop culture, or postmodernism. Since its release, it has been steadily applauded by reviewers and critics because of its quirkiness, periodization, and insight. For all of its acclaim, however, the film leaves much to be unpacked, especially as a source of narrative and cinematic innovation.

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