Originally shown December 15, 2010
I’ll tell you exactly what 20th Century Fox was thinking with Idiocracy. At some point in 2005, some underling at the studio saw Mike Judge’s charming FOX television show King of the Hill, and perhaps received a hazy memory that Judge also created the MTV shows Beavis and Butthead and Daria.* Somehow he managed to get a meeting with a guy at the studio who made decisions, and I imagine the conversation went a little like this…
Underling: So this guy has a script for us.
Decision Man: Screw him, why does he think he can make a movie here?
Underling: He created one of our biggest hit TV shows.
Decision Man: Sold!
To put it simply, this is a movie which would never have been made if they guys with the purse strings had been paying attention. That’s not because it’s bad, mind you … that’s because it’s one of those rare satires which is too accurate, and those guys with the purse strings are its target.
The movie turns on one conceit, which some critics have compared to eugenics or dysgenics: well-educated people become so obsessed with career and other pursuits that they don’t breed very much. People who sit around and watch The Jerry Springer Show all day? They breed like rabbits. Keep that pattern up for a few hundred years, and popular culture will get even more dumbed down than it already is. Much, much, much more dumbed down.
Luke Wilson plays a perfectly average guy who gets caught up in an Army experiment with cryogenic storage. He is frozen and subsequently forgotten about, until he wakes up five hundred years later. In the future, his average intelligence makes him a genius: the smartest man in America. He finds that a prostitute from his time (Maya Rudolph) arrived with him, and together they try to make their way in a world gone stupid. All they want to do is find a time machine and go home, but it’s not going to be easy when the most scientific advice one can get is “your shit’s all fucked up.”
Idiocracy might well be the most cynical piece of entertainment I’ve ever seen. More than Dr. Strangelove, more than The Simpsons at its darkest,** more than any music I can think of, this story plays around with the idea of how easily we could destroy ourselves without even being aware of it. It’s just this simple: if you had a Gatorade-style drink, and its marketing worked too well, and it invested millions of dollars to buy off the Food and Drug Administration, wouldn’t people feed it to plants instead of water? That’s how this movie takes place during an epic famine.
I’m not just singling out Gatorade, either. A number of companies are parodied in this movie, the absurd logic of their advertising pitches taken to their natural extremes. Every single person in the Idiocracy society makes decisions based around trying not to look like a “wuss” or a “fag,” which cleverly acknowledges the trend in current advertising to sell products to “manly” men. It has been speculated that this is why Idiocracy was released to only seven cities with no advertising at all: Fox feared its skewering wit would offend companies that wanted place products in other Fox films.
That may have been part of it, but in truth, the movie is no kinder to its audience. I don’t care how smart you are, this movie is likely to parody some aspect of modern behavior that you see in yourself. The short attention span that we have today is cranked up to such an absurd extreme that Wilson faces death because the people of America can’t wait long enough for a plant to start growing. If you’ve ever been bored by a slow-paced art film or even a game of baseball, you might think Judge is pointing the finger at you. Honestly, for my part, I can’t say that I’ve never done something idiocratic.
The ideas in this movie are so big that the actors are insignificant by comparison. It’s not that Wilson and Rudolph are bad actors; it’s just that the movie is built around the idea that ignorance and stupidity are more powerful than their characters could ever be, and they are treated accordingly. The only actor in the movie that seems bigger than its gloomy attitude is ex-NFL linebacker Terry Crews as the President of the United States; he gives a crazed, go-for-broke performance that really surprised me.
I think the big problem with Idiocracy is the same as with many sci-fi satires: imagining the dystopian world is easy, but fitting a coherent story into that world is hard. This picture’s angry cynicism is so powerful that it infects you and darkens your mood; when the movie subsequently tries to have a happy ending, it feels like a cop-out. The screenplay’s logic works the first time but fails on subsequent thought; where, for example, was the rest of the world while America was getting so dumb?
Idiocracy reminded me of a much different movie: Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Certain aspects of both films really rubbed me the wrong way, but I realized later that was the filmmakers’ plan all along. Also like Bamboozled, this is a film which is prescient of the directions our popular culture would go in since its release: much like Lee foresaw the existence of From G’s to Gents or Flavor of Love, Judge’s movie predicts the popularity of Jersey Shore. The difference is tone: Lee’s film is deeply angry – and rightly so – but that made it tough to watch. Idiocracy is so light-hearted that it was easy to laugh even when its accusing finger was pointed directly at me.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Yes, I’m aware that Judge actually had nothing to do with “Daria.” It’s a joke, just go with it.
**Which would be “Frank Grimes” or “HOMR,” I think.