Idiocracy (2006) Re-Visited

In a time when one literally has to argue that exploding nuclear power plants really do pose grave risks to human health — against people with letters after their names — the case could easily be made that we’re already living in an Idiocracy. As Japan finds itself irradiated and helpless to stop the radioactive isotopes escaping from multiple reactors, still the President of the United States refuses to put a halt to expanding the nuclear industry here.

Take that snapshot, that microcosm of what’s wrong with the world today and expand it out to the food chain, the rainforests, the air we breathe, the drinking water we ingest, the chemicals sprayed on our lawns and between the cracks of concrete. In every facet of our lives compromises have been made for us, often without our knowledge or consent. In the case of genetically-modified crops the government has long abdicated its responsibility and refuses to regulate. Genes from God-knows-where co-exist with the natural genes in all manner of foodstuffs. These foods are deliberately thrown into the food chain in a manner that we cannot know what’s in it, where it came from, or what it does to lab rats. We’re the lab rats!

It’s unsurprising that the invisible poisons and genetic experiments can be force fed us when people willingly choose to ingest all sorts of unhealthy junk.

Which leads me, hamfistedly, back to Mike Judge’s comedy/sci-fi Idiocracy, a film that takes these trends to their logical conclusions.

There are many factors to consider when a great film doesn’t turn a large profit. Idiocracy does not appear to have done well financially despite being one of the funniest satires of American consumer culture ever produced.

Idiocracy is so bold and so outrageous that it could potentially have alienated its own potential audience. The target, throughout the film, could be considered stupid people, even people of “average” intelligence who live meaningless lives of convenience and just getting along. This may have been too close to home for a large swath of American movie ticket purchasers. Or perhaps the studio marketing gang didn’t like the message and simply failed to promote it?

After all, it’s hard to make deals with Carl’s Jr. et al. after your last project reamed Carl’s Jr. et al. up their posteriors. And it really is just about the deals, no?

While Americans are bombarded with advertising messages that promote convenience, sex and greed — Idiocracy has basically given them everything as promised and then shows the results. The trajectory is clear and in the downward direction. So let’s give corporate America the benefit of the doubt and say yes — you win — here’s what will happen.

The film’s budget is not available at BoxOfficeMojo, which could suggest a major miscue and loss. With less than $500,000 theatrical revenues the film did eventually see more than $9M in DVD sales and rentals. That’s good, and it may have pushed it into the black. Hollywood accounting prohibits us from ever knowing for sure.

The main thrust of Idiocracy is to shine a light on our short-term priorities and our culture’s lack of foresight as society today expands and devours up the planet’s resources converting everything into large monuments of trash. Judge also accounts for the reckless breeding where the uneducated pop out more and more children. This reproductive recklessness is arguably the cornerstone of the other intractable problems. As population explodes natural resources will disappear. The world will lurch toward crisis, famine, collapse.

In some respects WALL-E covered similar territory, and with much greater market penetration: $551M worldwide theatrical, plus home video and rentals.

So, why did Idiocracy flounder where the little trash-compacting robot soared to new heights?

It’s complicated. The R rated sex jokes throughout Idiocracy would have pushed out certain market segments, obviously. Adult movies usually under-perform versus kid’s movies. Another facet is that viewers are far more forgiving of their digital worlds lacking big movie stars than they are in live action pieces.

Luke Wilson was funny and pointedly understated as average Army private Joe Bauers. Still, audiences would sense that Luke Wilson brings only so much clout to a film, and charismatically he’s no Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon.

Audiences will no doubt have also considered Wilson’s love interest Maya Rudolph who was cast appropriately and acted well enough. But Rudolph’s eye candy factor is not going to draw a lot of casual male browsers. For better or worse, today’s viewers tend to be as shallow as Judge portrays them 500 years in the future. By casting a less than Goddess-level star in the main female role Judge put the film’s financials at risk. That’s the movie business.

I suppose that’s just life imitating art imitating life when the satire actually proves the point. But ouch. The film should have been seen by a lot more people who really need to understand and absorb the main messages of the narrative.

So what is Mike Judge saying?

Evolution has shifted such that stupid people breed like rabbits, and the smarter ones tend not to. Long term trending in this direction produces a stupid society which will eventually collapse under its own weight: pretty straightforward line of reasoning. With corporate domination and a culture of convenience, regular people find it easier to just go along and get along, subsisting on junk food and entertainment. This is scary close to current reality for an ever-increasing chunk of the populace.

Private Joe Bauer ends up being the guy who traverses both worlds, our world today — in which he is complicit, just getting by — and the world of the future where everything has gone to its logical destructive conclusion.

The future American people are reduced to drooling cretins consumed with base instincts, convenience, entertainment, mockery and fear of anything new. Rigid blinders have become the norm as the inhabitants stumble around seeking to satisfy their needs and urges without having to think. Thought has become an anachronism. Mindlessness has ascended and is now the status quo.

The consumer / customer service culture has worked out the necessities of life into options as on a plastic menu. You get a few button choices to push in each area of your life, and that’s it. Why would you want more?

Just as individuals seek only convenience and refuse to think so does the society at large, at all levels.

Enter Joe Bauer, and his companion, the prostitute / time-traveling guinea pig Rita. Joe is discovered to be the most intelligent man alive in America in the 26th century.

The government — helmed hilariously by President Camacho — assigns Joe one week to solve all the problems that exist. Since he’s the smartest man in the world, it’s a no-brainer, no?

The confused rabble look to the new leader to save them. They seek the quick fix, the solution that requires no sacrifice on their part.

Joe wants only to get to a time machine, which can transport him back to our time. He then actually does solve their crop problem, but in so doing he disrupts the status quo. His act of saving the crops throws the entire society into chaos and free fall. The mobs riot and call for Joe’s head.

Interestingly, Joe’s only crime was solving the famine issue by removing a malevolent corporation from of the equation, and substituting actual water for their defective crop irrigation product.

When Joe fails to get the crops growing fast enough their entire world turns on him in an instant. If he will not save them with the quick painless fix then they’ll just kill him for sport in a gladiatorial setting. It’s all very fall of the Roman Empire in a blaze of mindless carnage — monster truck murder as Rome burns.

Judge makes many observations about the failures of government, of democracy, of corporate influence on society, and ultimately of us and our own place in the scheme of an unsustainable system.

Judge does not let the public off the hook. The Idiocracy after all gives them everything they want and more. This is in evidence today: the junk food, the mindless TV, the meaningless sex and violence and the waste. The genius of Idiocracy is giving it all to us and then showing us where it may lead, and doing it all in an extremely funny fashion.

Why are sports players and pop singers worshiped, while scientists are simply treated as employees, their discoveries and inventions taken and owned by their corporate masters?

Who are the “rock star” biochemists, curing diseases?

Why is there limitless money for war materiel and financial industry bailouts, but not for educating the next generation of citizens?

Idiocracy is an in-your-face challenge to address the current culture’s shortcomings.

Every purchase, every mouse click, every click of the channel changer carries with it a vote in favor of one thing at the expense of another. Enough votes for the wrong set of priorities adds up. Over time it conjures a nightmare the likes of which can only be imagined in dark, twisted sci-fi comedies like Idiocracy.

The film also does a wonderful job at calling out the breeders, those none-too-bright highly fertile individuals among us who produce a plethora of spawn to swallow up the earth as we speak. Overpopulation actually gets a real treatment. Most problems can be traced back to overpopulation, the depletion of resources due to too many human beings consuming them. How many films come right out and say it: stop breeding like insects?

Far too few will tread in Judge’s footsteps, especially considering the risk and reward model we operate under here in the land of the free. It’s far easier — for a well paid marketer — to rub the audience on the belly and tell them how awesomely special they are, whether you actually mean it or not. Whether they deserve it or not. Whether it’s a sham, a lie, a sin.

I’m looking forward to whatever Mike Judge produces next. Idiocracy could be his greatest achievement to date. Many will say that it’s Office Space. Some may even prefer Beavis and Butthead or King of the Hill. Idiocracy though whacks the entire brainless plastic corporate dictated culture across the face with a big rubber dong, and that’s pretty damned cool.

Joe Giambrone is a filmmaker and author of Hell of a Deal: a Supernatural Satire. He edits the Political Film Blog. He be reached at: polfilmblog at gmail.