Existential Review: Idiocracy.
Well, America, guess I have to review Idiocracy for you now. You can probably guess why.
Tonight I review Idiocracy, one of my favorite cult comedies, for all of the wrong reasons. Instead of basking in the glow of its rampant satire, snarky dialogue, wonderful characters and hillarious visuals, I know am going to talk about whether or not Mike Judge hit the mark with his prediction of an America ruled by dumb-asses. What fun.
Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is the most average man in the US army. He’s probably the most average man in all of America. Perturbed by his outstanding lack of any defining traits or talents, his superiors volunteer him for an experiment that will freeze him indefinitely, alongside another expendable citizen, Rita (Maya Rudolph) who is a prostitute trying to escape from her overbearing pimp. The project is a success, but budget cut-backs close the base…with Joe and Rita still frozen. They languish on ice for 500 years until an avalanche of garbage breaks open their units. They awaken to an America that has bred itself into laziness and stupidity, and discover the horrible truth that these two average losers are now the smartest human beings alive.
The World’s Shortest Movie Review.
Idiocracy is an excellent movie. The characters are fun, funny, well played, and believable (despite being wild caricatures.) With a very modest budget, it has wonderful visuals and clever effects, leaning heavily on immense matte paintings. The use of voice-over narration is inspired, giving us all we need in the way of information and providing smart meta-jokes throughout. If you only want to know if you should see this comedy, the short answer is yes.
Now, I’ll talk about this movie as a metaphor, and if it is as applicable to our current predicament as many commentators assert. Don’t worry, there’s more pictures with funny jokes under them.
Mike Judge (Office Space, King of the Hill, Beavis and Butt-Head) has repeatedly shown himself to have a keen eye for lethal satire. Gentle mocking is not in his vocabulary. When you watch Trey Parker and Matt Stone, for instance, you get a feeling that you are in on the joke. You’re cool and smart, not like all of the idiots they are ripping on. Mike Judge says to hell with that. There’s plenty of rock salt in his comedy shotgun, and nobody is limping away without an ass-full of buckshot.
There’s never quite a hero in Judge’s work, just a protagonist who is just a little less awful than his persecutors. Peter, the main character in Office Space, is shiftless, selfish and hedonistic. Hank Hill is a bumbling redneck. Beavis and Butt-Head are…awful, really. So too with Joe. Joe is average by dint of hard work, and the complete avoidance of it. He’s a librarian in the army because he figures it’s the job that will cause him the least effort possible. He only agrees to help out to get his own ass out of dutch and go home to his cushy job.
The brilliant nature of Judge’s critique is that he’s not grinding an ax. Smug liberals get it as bad as foolish hillbillies. Everybody done fucked up, the movie asserts, and I’m not even going to suggest how to un-fuck it. I’m just going to laugh at it all as it burns. Pass me my fiddle.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Idiocracy paints a grand tableau of human indolence. The sprawling cities of skyscrapers just barely peeking above mountains of garbage; a labyrinthine Costco that looks like it sells everything you need to become Mad Max; giant coliseums filled with idiocy and violence; a civil service system that runs on auto-pilot, whisking both patients and prisoners to their destinations with equal obliviousness. It reminds me of Hieronymus Bosch’s most famous painting: The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Just look at it. On the left, you have an idealized past (that, sorry, never existed.) In the center, you have the perfect present: everything it tamed to human desires. We rule the animals, our cities are splendid, we control the elements, and everybody is naked and getting it on. Now look at the right…
That’s where Idiocracy takes place. Cities are giddy nightmares. There is savagery and brutality. Our art is monstrous, and our past-times are insanity. And we didn’t get there by being dumb…we got there by being too damned smart.
I’m going to argue that Idiocracy is a cautionary tale, just not the right one for our times. In Idiocracy, the very smart people have listened to the plea of the masses: this shit is too hard, can you please make it so I don’t have to do anything from the neck up but blink and swallow. Sim Sala Bim, wish granted!
Unfortunately, the very smart people then became unnecessary. If the little probe dongle can fix my cold, why do I need some smart-ass doctor? If the fields water themselves, why do I need to worry about ecology? The major corporation, Brawndo the Thirst Mutilator, automatically hires and fires people as needed to keep the “ecomony” running, so nobody even worries about a paycheck. Idiocracy is a snapshot of a peak society…just before it hits the downslope and things really start to get dire.
All Downhill from Here.
Our current situation is subtly different. We’re not fat dumb and happy. We’re fat dumb and pissed. We’re not just insulated from understanding our system, we’re largely insulated from its benefits as well. Four in ten workers make less than 20k a year. That doesn’t buy a lot of Brawndo. We’ve got a groundswell of nuckleheads who don’t think science or medicine is real, so they’re scared and angry of the dongle instead of letting it do everything for them. It takes a happy electorate to nominate President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. What we just elected was Immortan Joe, a tough guy promising to kick ass and keep the gasoline and bullet flow steady.
Idiocracy’s population, like Brave New World or the Eloi in The Time Machine, are largely apathetic and coasting. They’re dumb because they can afford to be. The system is still mostly grinding along just fine. It’s only towards the end of the movie that the machine starts to conk. In fact, it’s poor average Joe who nearly kills it. By watering the plants instead of giving them Brawndo, he causes mass unemployment. Eventually he’s vindicated and made President on a platform of moderately smarter policies. Incremental change. That doesn’t sound much like President Spray Tan. That sounds more like the other candidate, hell, more like our last president.
Maybe in Idiocracy 2 we would have seen the rise of a demagogue who challenges Joe’s gradual improvements with promises of pie in the sky results and casual scapegoating. I guess we don’t have to wait for Mike Judge to make that movie though…we’re going to find out how it ends on our own.