[Books & Culture; Novv/Dec 2007]
Idiocracy is the most thought-provoking bad movie I’ve ever seen. But, stand warned, it’s pretty bad. No kidding. The plot is flimsy, the characters are flat, and the minutes fly like hours. You’ll be desperate for it to end, long before the 87 minutes run their course.
And yet it lingers in the mind. The day after you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. As the months go by, you’ll be more and more impressed by its accuracy. In the last century, World’s Fairs often set aside space to show what life would be like in the future, displays with names like “Temple of Progress.” You could say that Idiocracy renders an unnerving Temple of Regress. But if you did, they’d call you a fag.
That’s one of the running jokes in Idiocracy. Time-traveler Joe Bauers (played by Luke Wilson) awakens 500 years in the future, and discovers that he is now the smartest person in the world. When he politely asks help or directions from the obese and stupid folks around him, they guffaw and ask why he’s talking “like a fag.” The idea that today’s common speech might one day sound pompously contrived is startling and then, on reflection, seems dismayingly possible.
Here’s a quick run-through of the plot, such as it is (spoilers ahead). Joe is an Army librarian, and thoroughly mediocre. When told he’s being given a new assignment, he protests, “But every time Sarge says ‘Lead, follow, or get out of the way,’ I get out of the way!” It’s explained that this is supposed to embarrass him into leading, or at least following. “That doesn’t embarrass me,” says Joe.
Joe has been chosen as a guinea pig for a program to flash-freeze soldiers during peacetime and thaw them out when needed. (Rita, played by Maya Rudolph, is selected as his female counterpart, but she’s inconsequential as far as the plot’s concerned.) But the program is inadvertently forgotten, and when Joe’s capsule breaks open in 2505 he is bewildered by the lumbering stupidity and crudity all around. He goes for help to a hospital, where Dr. Lexus (Justin Long) tells him, in a genial surfer-dude voice, “Well, it says on your chart you’re f___ed up. You talk like a fag and your s____’s all retarded.” Lexus assures him that it’s OK to be retarded. “My first wife was ‘tarded. She’s a pilot now.”
Joe leaves the hospital without paying and winds up under arrest. He is required to take an intelligence test (“If you have a bucket that holds two gallons, and another bucket that holds five gallons, how many buckets do you have?”), which reveals that he is the smartest man in the world. The President appoints him Secretary of the Interior, and gives him one week to solve the drought crisis. Joe can’t meet the deadline, and is sentenced to Monday Night Rehablilitation – a televised gladiatorial contest in which Joe is expected to lose his life. But at the last minute word comes through that seedlings are beginning to sprout, and Joe’s life is spared.
Well, that’s it. I don’t know if the right term in this case is “spoiler.”
What’s memorable about this movie is the details. For example, the Costco of the future has aisles numbering in the tens of thousands. There are rail stations to help shoppers get around. Racks soar overhead till they’re lost in darkness, and a long shot reveals a field of neatly ranked red sofas stretching to the horizon. Joe’s new friend Frito (Dax Shepard) is nostalgic visiting Costco, because he went to law school there. And at the entrance stands a greeter, a young man the size of a sumo wrestler, who morosely tells each shopper, “Welcome to Costco. I love you.”
Now, there are plenty of jokes circulating about how Costco’s vastness, but the “…I love you” is a bit of genius. Director Mike Judge has a knack for taking something most of us half-recognize and giving it a satirical twist that will promote it permanently to full awareness. It’s a talent he showed before in his best-known film, Office Space (1999), which was a dud at the box office but later took on cult status, and now shows up frequently on TV. It depicts twenty-somethings grappling with the novel experience of earning their own keep, holding down jobs that are a far cry from what their teachers promised would be theirs if they only followed their dreams.
One of those perfect-details moments in Office Space comes when Joanna (played by Jennifer Aniston), a waitress at a chain restaurant named Chotchkie’s, is taken aside by the manager, Stan (played by Mike Judge). Stan is concerned that Joanna doesn’t have many items of “flair” on her uniform, that is, buttons and pins with wise-guy sayings that are supposedly fun. She has 15 pieces of flair, “the bare minimum,” he says, but laughing-boy waiter Brian has 37 as well as “a terrific smile.” Joanna keeps asking nervously, “So, more flair, right?” but Stan insists, “Look, we want you to express yourself, OK? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then, OK. But some people choose to wear more, and we encourage that, OK? You do want to express yourself, don’t you?”
Cubicle drones embraced Office Space as their favorite bit of flair, but the comedy was actually pretty dark; Dilbert jobs were revealed to be a meaningless grind, and at the end the lead character happily escapes to more manly work in construction. Manly men feature as well in Judge’s very successful Fox TV show, King of the Hill, the longest-running animated sitcom after The Simpsons. Lead character Hank Hill holds down a blue-collar job in a Texas town, goes to church, and loves his family. He’s reflexively conservative, common-sensical, honest and honorable, and is weekly challenged to cope with friends and family who are anything but. When his 13-year-old son, Bobby, joins the earnestly hip youth group at church, Hank notes the leaders’ faddish dress, tattoos, and piercings. This is thrilling to Bobby, but Hank shows him a box full of his discarded childhood toys. He says, “Son, five years from now I don’t want to see you putting the Lord in this box.” No one except Hank Hill can say something like that on TV and make it sound reasonable.
Judge is well-known for another animated sitcom, Beavis and Butthead, which aired on MTV in the mid-90’s. It was widely understood as a Lenny Bruce-type attack on social values, but it could just as readily be seen as a counter-attack, a protest against the rising tide of mindless, ugly popular culture. Beavis and Butthead are not modestly heroic, like Hank Hill, but nasty, stupid, and repellent. They mistreat the good people around them, and reserve their admiration for a local hoodlum whom they hope to be like when they grow up. Beavis and Butthead show us the sharper end of Mike Judge’s wit.
It’s my hunch that Idiocracy was designed to be a similarly dark burlesque on contemporary culture. The internet rumor (take it as you will) is that when preliminary versions of Idiocracy were shown to test audiences, it bombed. So when it was released in September, 2006, it got the smallest possible fanfare, opening in only 6 markets. Fox Film did not even prepare a poster to advertise the film. Were panicky changes made, in an attempt to fix it with audiences? How different is the version in your video store from the version Mike Judge intended?
It’s easy enough to envision test audiences being uncertain how to take things. For example, as Joe sleeps and the centuries pass, the sign on a hamburger franchise nearby keeps changing: originally it’s “Fuddruckers,” then “Futtbuckers” and then “Buttruckers,” and finally arrives at the obvious obscenity. When Joe awakes this sign is one of the first things he sees. Then his eyes travel down to the restaurant window, where children with party hats and balloons are celebrating a birthday. We’re supposed to sympathize with Joe and feel sadness, shock, or disgust. But it’s easy to imagine a test audience laughing and cheering instead, as they’ve been conditioned to do any time a four-letter-word appears. Next, Joe goes to see the most popular movie in the country, which is titled “Ass.” The narrator tells us, “and that’s all it was, for 90 minutes” (we see a clip and hear a toot). This film won eight Oscars that year, “including Best Screenplay.” The audience surrounding Joe is in stitches, but he looks pained.
Another misfire might come when Joe first meets Frito, who is watching the Violence Channel on his enormous multi-screen TV. (Frito’s also a fan of the Masturbation Channel.) It’s an episode of the popular TV show, Ow! My Balls! First, the star is seen on the balcony of a high rise. A man steps up behind and kicks him hard, which sends him flying into the air. He lands crotchwise on a telephone wire, which sproings him into the air again; this time he lands again straddling a fence; as he tries to climb down a dog jumps and clamps its teeth into his crotch…well, you get the idea. Though Frito is clearly an idiot – he’s laughing, “Hunh, hunh, guy got hit inna balls” – test audiences may well have laughed along with him. And though we often see Joe recoiling or appalled by such sights, to many viewers he probably just looked prissy or stuck-up. Folks aren’t used to identifying with disapprovers.
The future is not all sex and potty jokes, there’s also rap-and-wrestler style braggadocio and blithe threats of violence. The label on Tarrylton cigarettes reads: “Warning: The Surgeon General has one lung and a voicebox, but he could still kick your sorry ass.” Carl’s Jr hamburger stands currently use a smiling yellow star as their symbol, but in the future the yellow star wears a scowl. The revised slogan is: “F*ck you. I’m eating.” (Another theory about the film’s lack of promotion is that similar jokes at the expense of Starbucks, “Home of the Gentleman’s Latte,” and other such high-profile businesses gave Fox pause.) And then there’s Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, “five-time Ultimate Smackdown Champion, porn superstar, and President of the United States.”
So the future is not just smutty but angry, and the kind of outsized, explosive violence possible in movie special effects is now expected, in fact welcomed, in real life. As Joe, Frito, and Rita are escaping from the police they learn that their car has been spotted, so they leap out, making a dash for it. From a block away they turn back to see cops surround the car and immediately start firing into it with shoulder-mounted weaponry. As it bursts into flames a crowd gathers, cheering and pumping their fists. Frito joins in, “*Hell,* yeah! He’s on fire!” By the way, this is Frito’s car.
How did the world get so stupid? The story of Joe’s adventure is preceded by a depiction of two “case studies,” a yuppie couple who never find time to have a child, and a white-trash moron impregnating every female he can reach. The narrator explains, “With no natural predators to thin the herd, [nature] began to simply reward those who reproduced the most.” (The presence of a narrator in Idiocracy may be another last-minute fix. Narration can indicate a lack of confidence that a story is able to tell itself.) Was it actually Judge’s intention to promote “more from the fit, less from the unfit,” as eugenicists used to say?
My own theory is that the world got crude and stupid because of an official culture-wide goal of segregation. Not segregation by race, but by intelligence. Brilliance is not the sole possession of the rich, and gifted children can be found living in poverty, perhaps isolated in Appalachia, or endangered in the drug-and-death plagued inner city. When highly gifted children appear in such settings, screening mechanisms are supposed to identify them, pluck them out, and give them the scholarships and support they need to flourish as leaders and achievers.
Nothing better could happen to them. But what happens to the community left behind? Before, there were always a few wise folks around. Every village would have at least a few people whose natural intelligence set them apart, and gave them a local reputation as someone worth listening to. But today, if the intelligence talent-search machinery does its job, they’re identified in their youth, scooped out, and groomed to join meritocratic society. Idiosyncrasies of origin are scrubbed away, and they dress and talk and act like high-class people do these days. Meanwhile, the communities left behind, drained of their best and brightest, begin to become recognizable marketing blocs all their own. They are targeted with material that confirms and solidifies their isolation from a broader, historically richer culture. Through sheer numbers and volume this can become the general culture, and those of us dismayed by it can do nothing but retreat.
If Idiocracy is a message film, what’s the message? Rita visits Joe in prison the night before he’s expected to die in front of a stadium full of cheering idiots (including Frito: “Too bad about Joe. Hey can you turn that up? I love Monday Night Rehabilitation.”) Joe urges her to find the time machine Frito told them about and return to their own time. “Look, you wanna pay me back? Just go back, OK?” The camera dollies in to him, then to her, to make sure we get it. “Tell people to read books. Tell them to stay in school. Tell people to just use their brains or something. Y’know, I think maybe the world got like this because of people like me. I never did anything with my life.”
There’s a happy ending, of course, and Joe becomes the next president. In his inaugural speech he says, “You know, there was a time in this country when smart people were considered cool. Well, maybe not cool, but smart people did things, like build ships and pyramids, and they even went to the moon. And there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags. And neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories, so you cared whose ass it was, and why it was farting. And I believe that time can come again!”
Maybe it can, and an excellent film conveying the ideas in Idiocracy might have given aid. Unfortunately, the story itself is just not that good. Rent the movie and watch it for the perfect details. You’ll find that just one viewing is enough.