Movies

Fear the Repo

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You don't even know what's in your own trunk! And you know what? I think you're afraid to find out!

Repo Men, which to everyone's great disappointment (or perhaps relief) has nothing to do with Alex Cox's 1984 drug-punk classic, Repo Man, is a shallow, stupid critique of organ markets in specific and for-profit health care in general that doesn't even have the decency to be amusing. Oh, it tries, from time to time, by every so often adopting the pose of a pitch black sci-fi satire. But that's part of the movie's problem: It doesn't know what it wants to be. For every scene that's seeped in bleak socio-political snark, there's another that appears to be lifted from a treacly issue drama, and yet another that looks like it was yanked from a direct-to-video Matrix ripoff. Like the movie's confused and destitute future-world patients, it's cobbled together from a grab bag of outside parts—in this case, ideas pioneered by better, smarter filmmakers who no doubt wish they could take them back.

There isn't much to the story, and what there is doesn't make much sense. Instead of plot, the movie's got setting: a near future in which a decidedly non-union-like company called The Union sells sells artificial body parts using the line "the days of waiting and praying are over" (though desperately waiting and praying—for the movie's end—is almost certainly what everyone in the audience is up to). The Union's parts appear to be the only lifesaving solutions for many of their clients, so they charge exorbitant fees while offering outrageous financing terms to those who can't pay up front. And in the movie's world, that seems to be just about everyone.

There's a catch, though: After just a few months of non-payment, The Union reserves the right to send a blue-collar thug to hunt you down and "repossess"—i.e.: crudely cut out of your living body—the organ.

To say this is incoherent, both as story and critique, is an understatement. It's probably too much to expect sci-fi screenwriters to understand economics, but even a little bit of basic common sense and logic would've sufficed. Even if regulators (nowhere to be found in the film) or social pressure (also absent) hadn't put a stop to the practice of repossession-via-murder, competition probably would have, as organ companies would've quickly sought to attract customers by dropping the harshest contractual terms. Doctors, too, would've been unlikely to participate in The Union's grisly scheme, knowing its eventual deadly outcome.

And even if you disregard that aspect, the business model—judging solely from a cold-and-heartless-for-profit perspective—doesn't make any sense: Why kill potentially profitable customers when you could adjust the terms and settle? And why make the loans if they won't be repaid? (Yes, in the real world, mortgage companies have done this, but in large part because of goverment programs encouraging such behavior and complicated financial instruments that incentivized making more loans rather than good loans. Such incentives appear nowhere in the film.) The Union's organ repo men aren't allowed to take payment when clients offer, and the repossessing of organs isn't a practice of last resort, it's something The Union seems positively eager to do! The movie appears oblivious to the idea that this would almost certainly result in a significant loss of profit (a live person could conceivably pay off all or part of the debt; a dead person definitely can't pay off any of it), especially since its organ repo men are paid hefty commissions, and even allowed to repossess unpaid-for organs on spec, like roaming mercenaries. Why would any for-profit entity spend so much on literally murdering their best potential sources of income?

There's probably an interesting, thought-provoking movie to be made about unregulated organ markets, but this isn't it. Indeed, by the time it was over, my only thought was that I wished I could repossess my time.

Read former Reason editor Virginia Postrel on organ donations here and here. Contributing Editor Kerry Howley wrote about selling her ova here.

Remember Repo! The Genetic Opera, the cheesy 2008 sci-fi musical with nearly the same concept as Repo Men? Yeah, I didn't think so.

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