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Ronald Reagan and radiation: The enduring satire of 'Repo Man'

'Repo Man' - Alex Cox

Out of all the satirical masterpieces that were produced during the 1980s, Repo Man stands apart as a work of extraordinary creativity and innovation. Alex Cox’s debut feature is one of a kind, fuelled by anarchic sensibilities and hilarious writing that is still frequently quoted because none of the humour has faded away with time.

Cox was inspired by his own experiences while coming up with the idea for the film, drawing on the nights that he spent with his neighbour – a repo man who often invited the director to tag along on his nightly missions to repossess cars. Cox thought of this phenomenon as “legalised theft” and found it so morally complex that he felt the urge to make an entire feature about it.

Starring Emilio Estevez as a high-school dropout punk who happens to run into an experienced repo man (played by the inimitable Harry Dean Stanton) just like Cox did, Repo Man is a sprawling chronicle of the absurdities of the Reagan administration, America and the ’80s. With time, those absurdities have only multiplied exponentially but Repo Man’s satire is so good that it can only be described as “timeless” despite the highly specific cultural framework the film uses.

While reflecting on the sociopolitical climate created by Reagan and Thatcher, Cox admitted: “It did seem we were all going to get killed.” That’s the fundamentally apocalyptic, grotesquely comical sentiment which gave birth to the unique artistic vision of Repo Man, a film where people get vaporised due to radiation exposure from dead aliens and televangelists convince followers to take a mortgage and send in donations (yes, this is the norm now).

At its surface, Repo Man is an extremely fun sci-fi romp that features some of the most disparate elements like but it makes them work by being an uber-cool experience. The television sets and radio stations emit rambling blurbs which could be added to any new Grand Theft Auto game and nobody would be able to tell the difference – the psychedelic death rattle of a dying empire.

The primary reason why Repo Man has become a cult classic is because it is much more than the silly visual effects, dead aliens, conspiracy theories and punk culture. It digs much deeper, painting a portrait of a society where mind-numbing paranoia is the only natural consequence of hyper-capitalism, consumerism and the delinquencies of an anarchist resistance. Only in a world like this can you travel through time in a glowing car.

Ranging from commentary on the psychological experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram on the subject of torture to insightful revelations such as “the more you drive, the less intelligent you are,” Repo Man is the perfect combination between social awareness and schizophrenic delusions. The California shown in the film has changed but even after all these years, it is an effortless task to try and understand the cultural craziness of Repo Man because we have successfully embraced the satire as our own reality.

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