In 1983 it seemed the world was about to end. A NATO war game exercise was meant to test how quickly NATO forces could move from a conventional war against the eastern European threat to a nuclear war against the Soviet Union. Soviet Union spies looked on with concern, but their concern quickly became panic when the USA moved its military to DEFCON One, the highest level of readiness for nuclear war. Was this a training exercise or the start of an invasion? Convinced they were about to be attacked, the Soviets began preparations to strike first.
High level negotiations soon saw the situation defuse but the lingering sense of foreboding remained for much of the decade. It fuelled a generation of nihilism. An overwhelming sense that the end was nigh and since you had no control over it, you might as well just do as you pleased. This fuelled the punk movement in America with bands such as Black Flag, Plugz and Iggy Pop and the Stooges channelling their sense of existential despair into discordant guitar solos and drug soaked lyrics.
Repo Man has the same sense of despair. The squalid streets of LA are a dreary background to the slices of life portrayed by repo men from the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation. Emilio Estevez's character Otto’s life lurches from the minimalist absurdism of the 'home brand’ goods that abound to apocryphal excesses of frequent drug binges and the government agent with the metal hand. Otto treats each the same. It makes no difference to him because life (and the film) just does what it wants. There’s no point making connections or becoming impassioned – tomorrow it could all disappear like it never existed.
Repo Man is a film very much of its time. A young Alex Cox, fresh out of the UCLA film school, put together a script and cast that, if modern critics are to be believed, would probably never get past pitching today. It was absurd, often makes little sense, careens back and forth, and has no truly honourable characters. There was nothing for an escapist audience of filmgoers to latch on to. Today, Repo Man could not exist. But then, the 80s were a different time.