The Brilliantly Profane Repo Man Turned Sci-Fi Into Punk Rock

Get in the car!

Emilio estevez as Otto and Sy Richardson as Lite in 'Repo Man.'
Universal Pictures
Inverse Recommends

Dreaming up a convincing sci-fi premise is hard. Coming up with a decent sci-fi premise that also works as a hilarious piece of political satire is even harder. Other than 1988’s They Live, the only ’80s movie to delicately balance all these elements is the cult classic Repo Man. Full of unforgettable dialogue, a propulsive plot, and an underlying critique of a broken economic system, Repo Man feels even more relevant today than when it dropped on March 2, 1984. This strange, original film faced mixed reviews, but today we’re celebrating it as the most punk rock sci-fi movie ever.

Repo Man focuses on a teenager named Otto (Emilio Estevez) who’s rocking a fake ID and a bad attitude. After walking out of his soul-sucking corporate supermarket job, Otto finds himself recruited by Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) to become a repo man, someone who repossesses cars with all the finesse of a drunken thief. They’re essentially car bounty hunters, and when the retrieval of a specific Chevy Malibu promises a $20,000 reward, everyone wants a piece of the action. And that’s where the sci-fi twist comes in: this car has an alien in the trunk, a creature so powerful it will vaporize anyone who glances at it.

Otto swears constantly, tries to defy authority at every turn, accidentally falls in with a group of UFO enthusiasts, and has a charming weirdness that clashes with his punk ethos. In an early scene where he prepares to sleep with Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin), Otto methodically undresses while saying, “Excuse me while I fold my pants.”

The scene is a good example of what makes Repo Man unique, as characters constantly push against whatever stereotype we have of them. The anti-authoritarian punks like Debbi are, in the face of alien danger, revealed to be way less hard-edged than Otto and his found family of weird repo men. When the alien vaporizes Archie (Miguel Sandoval), Debbi double downs on “doing crimes,” and another punk specifically suggests, “Let’s go get Sushi and not pay!” Clearly, despite their punk rock outfits, they are not cool.

Meanwhile, as Bud, the brilliant Harry Dean Stanton channels his future role as the dad from Pretty in Pink by doling out parental advice to Otto, including his very specific rules for repossessing cars without damaging them. “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof,” he says. “Nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.”

This slyly parallels Isaac Asimov’s first law of robotics that prevents harm to humans, and this kind of layering of influences is part of what makes Repo Man work. The alien in the Chevy Malibu feels like it’s pulled from pulpy 1950s sci-fi and crammed into an unrelated genre, but reappropriating an Asimov line, throwing it into a dirty car, and cranking up some Iggy Pop pretty much sums up the mood of the film. There are even car chases here to rival movies like Bullitt. Director Alex Cox captured an aesthetic of grunge before grunge.

Emilio Estevez makes for a complicated, ironic punk.

Universal Pictures

Without spoiling the brilliant ending, something Repo Man does better than most other satirical films is make it pretty clear there’s really no way out of capitalism. Otto can rage against the machine all he wants, but on some level he recognizes that he and his fellow repo men fit the system. Repo Man reminds us, over and over again, that appearances are never what they seem, and sometimes the only way to find the truth is to take a leap of faith, and believe in the impossible. Even if it takes the form of an alien car.

Related Tags