After losing his minimum wage job, Otto (Emilio Estevez) is conned into helping Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) repossess a car. After getting the taste of the repo man life, Otto finds himself drawn to the profession.
Meanwhile, a renegade scientist (Fox Harris) slips into town in a Chevy Malibu. In the trunk lies destructive evidence of extraterrestrial life.
Repo Man’s most interesting comparison is probably Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Whereas the former was more a vehicle for Spielberg to test out big budget filmmaking and hone his voice, the latter runneth over with ideas big and small. Both are expansive films that have nowhere else to end but the heavens above. Repo Man touches on all manner of disease inflicted on the mid 80’s, the specter of nuclear annihilation, the unrest in Central America (and the US’s two options to respond: prayer and military terror), the dehumanizing effect of consumer culture, etc.... The most consistent theme running through the picture is generational disillusionment between Gen X and their elders.
You can interpret Repo Man as the last time Otto, and by extension all of Gen X, would be taken in by their elders. Bud initially wins him over with sage advice. He floats a code of respect to property that casts repossession as an honorable endeavor. But Otto keeps talking long after running out of his best platitudes. Driving through the inner city, Bud looks out on the nattily dressed minorities and sees a mass of moochers. He asks, in pure exasperated disgust, “how much do they owe?” And then he finally reveals himself: “If there was just some way to find out how much the motherfuckers owe and making them pay,” a line that wouldn’t sound out of place in a pro Reagan diatribe, the furthest thing from Otto’s “white suburban punk” philosophy. He bolts from Buds car in a flash, disowning his surrogate father. The next time Otto and Bud meet, their roles reverse. Otto becomes the caregiver, the voice of reason. This dynamic parallels the drama behind the camera. Director Alex Cox became so worried about Harry Dean Stanton’s deranged on-set behavior, that he wrote “Bud” out of scenes later in the film.
Bud’s failure as a surrogate father aside, Otto must have realized at some point that the senior repo men were using him. It’s always Otto’s job to drive the hot car, making him a target for bullets and physical abuse. His senior partners follow at a distance, safe in their anonymity. The repo lot employs a small coterie of managers and security, none of whom seem to ever dirty their hands with any actual work. For his efforts Bud only claims 40% of the take from each vehicle.
On a societal level, the film coincided with the re-election of Ronald Reagan in 1984, an event credited with taking the wind out of the sails of the first wave of American hardcore punk. Many of the artists on the soundtrack made sport out of Reagan (typical of their attitude was “I Shot the Devil” by Suicidal Tendencies). Reagan and his policies may not have rescued America from the brink of hopelessness in any tangible way, but he did give the country a raft of scapegoats to shoulder the blame. Communists, welfare moochers, disrespectful punks, and their ilk were somehow the base of all the country’s problems. It took a social revolution to effectively combat them, and a whole industry of hucksters beamed into American households from television and radio offering not so much solutions as echoes of Reagan’s sentiments.
The whole older generation seems out of whack. Otto’s parents answer to the slick televangelist, surrendering unto him what would have been Otto’s rightful inheritance for an obvious scam, but even the supposedly salt of the earth blue collar workers of this era pass around “Dioretix” (a play on L. Ron Hubbard’s Dynanetics) as a mystical text.
The intelligentsia of this world are questionable figures. J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the nuclear bomb, was well spoken, conflicted in his role developing weapons of mass destruction, and thought of as a martyr sacrificed to the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s. His progeny, J. Frank Parnell, supposedly the inventor of the neutron bomb (in real life it was Sam Cohen, though the film leaves this ambiguous), is a fun house mirror version. He rambles and babbles. He leads innocent civilians into fatal contact with his extraterrestrial cargo. When he and Otto meet, Parnell delivers an apocalyptic spin on Bud’s repo code. His neutron bomb will leave buildings and property intact while killing all of the people.
Repo Man reaches the conclusion that the eighties were a bad deal for the youths of the day. Otto chooses to fly away rather than remain part of it. Though obviously not intentional, the ending plays as a more nihilistic version of the same “fly away” theme from The Neverending Story, also released in 1984.