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Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2006 Science Fiction comedy Idiocracy.
This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Bobby Evers.
Cult film: "A movie that has developed a small, but significant and thoroughly dedicated, fanbase that grows over time. This fanbase may form an elaborate subculture, members of which engage in repeated viewings, dialogue-quoting, and audience participation."
I'm not sure I'd want to wander into any event that involved audience participation in Idiocracy (particularly where its "trash avalanches" are concerned), but from a popularity standpoint, it fits the bill.
With no advance screenings and a very small theatrical release, Idiocracy grossed just under a half-million dollars when it debuted in 2006. But much like Office Space, director Mike Judge's preceding film, Idiocracy picked up steam on the DVD circuit in both money and critical acclaim, and some today consider it a rather prescient, subversive comedy.
For the uninitiated, Idiocracy tells the story of Army peon Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), who's selected to be the guinea pig in a hibernation device that's supposed to keep him in stasis for exactly one year.
A prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph) gets roped into the experiment as well (don't ask), but there's a malfunction, and the duo doesn't wake up until 500 years have passed.
During that time, it's explained that the huge disparity in procreation between upper/lower socioeconomic classes, magnified over many generations, have turned the country (and presumably the world) into a land of imbeciles.
And while Joe and Rita are no great shakes in their own era, they instantly become the smartest people in this future dystopia. It's a play on the familiar "fish out of water" trope, with the pair immediately sticking out like a sore thumb due to the fact that they can speak in grammatically-correct sentences.
As you might expect, nothing about Idiocracy is subtle. Society has been reduced to a vast sea of shantytowns, the local Costco store takes up the size of a small city (complete with an indoor transit system), and the country is in the grips of a famine which stems from the decision to douse crops with a Gatorade-like beverage instead of good ol' H2O.
To top it off, the nation is led by President Camacho (Terry Crews), a cross between a professional wrestler and televangelist, who accentuates his Congressional speeches with bursts of machine-gun fire.
If all this sounds a bit overwhelming... it is. The gags come fast and furious, from the visual (the Starbucks of the future now provides X-rated services) to the cultural, with virtually everything being commercialized in some fashion. That's not just President Camacho, but President Mountain Dew Hector Camacho.
It borders on Sensory Overload for this poor viewer, particularly one who appreciated the subdued, deadpan humor of the aforementioned Office Space. I'd never say Idiocracy was a "good" film, but it wasn't a boring one either.
Bobby, I'll pause for now, and leave you with some questions:
1) What do you think are the elements of a great satire? Do you think these are found in Idiocracy? How much suspension of belief should we offer up here? (I couldn't help but think that if the population were really as dumb as they're portrayed, there's no way they'd still have working electronics, automobiles, or buildings that didn't collapse during construction.)
2) How does the film compare to other humorous takes on the future? There are definitely some similarities to WALL-E in terms of environmental degradation and personal sloth. Though the world of Idiocracy might be the diametric opposite of the society depicted in Demolition Man? And then there's the dark, dark humor of the RoboCop universe. I wonder what someone like Paul Verhoeven or Darren Aronofsky might've done with this premise.
3) Where do you stand on the whole question of "art reflecting life?" While I'm not buying the fact that Idiocracy is some sort of allegory for our nation's populace in recent years, I have often wondered about the impact of different rates of childbirth! (Uh, is this film subtly promoting some form of eugenics...?)
You are making a lot of good points here, and I think your questions are salient.
I should mention this is not the first time I have watched this movie, but I am also not part of its subculture either. Like, I'm probably not going to go watch it at the Music Box, for example, though I do enjoy the memes it hath wrought.
According to my email notifications from 2011, I first watched this in the obsolete medium of Netflix discs, when Netflix would actually mail you a physical copy of the movie to your house and then you would return it via United States Postal Service. A bygone era to be sure.
As you've said, there has been a theory that Idiocracy is either an allegory for the times we're living in now, some 15 years later, or otherwise accurately predicted what was to come. But no one seems to be pointing out that Idiocracy accurately predicted how all of our entertainment would be; readily available "on demand" straight into our homes, rather than physical media (I'm kidding).
To your first question, a great satire is a work that has its finger on the pulse of what it's sending up, something that can make the audience feel a little spark of truth in their chest as they're watching it or reading it.
The spark might be painful or delightful, but it should resonate. As over the top and on the nose as this is, I think it does resonate.
I have had conversations with friends about how the kinds of people who "should" be building families (people who are patient, kind, have socioeconomic security, value education/good values, etc) are specifically choosing not to do that, and the people who "shouldn't" are doing it somewhat recklessly.
But at the same time, you're right; it's a little self-righteous and self-congratulatory to think of oneself as someone who "should" be populating the Earth as opposed to others. That was one aspect of the film that bugged me a bit, the thought that if your parents are uneducated, somehow you will inherit their lack of education.
I get that poverty is inherited, but I don't think that's what the film is saying. They're just talking about intelligence. I don't think a lack of intelligence is hereditary.
To your point about this dystopia being too stupid to be functioning at all, I think the film actually does show that; the prison guns that are supposed to indiscriminately shoot at escaping prisoners are flawed, and end up shooting at each other. And the tattoo/ID machine doesn't know how to understand nuance and gives Joe a completely stupid name.
And of course, the crops don't grow since they're being watered with sports drinks. I think it's a capitalist dystopia that is too stupid to function properly. But I think you're saying it would have made more sense if the systems oppressing them were even stupider and even less functional, and you're right.
As for how much suspension of disbelief we should allow, I think Idiocracy functions as a political cartoon, so it's OK to take it with a grain of salt. It actually reminded me of the rather polarizing Don't Look Up. It's so on the nose that it can be off-putting, but the abrasiveness is also weirdly what's fun about it.
It seems like Mike Judge had a lot of fun with world-building here, while constructing a parody of sci-fi tales that predicted "utopian futures," a la 1960's The Time Machine. Clearly, this is his vision of society's path if we grow more self-indulgent and corporate greed flourishes unfettered.
What would you have liked to see him do differently in terms of building a more nuanced story? What choices might you have made?
As far as a more nuanced version of Idiocracy -- that's a great question, Bobby. Let me circle back to that one. But first, you're talking about the days of Netflix DVDs being a bygone era? I just watched this film via a DVD from the public library! (If it hadn't been available, I was planning on bypassing the VHS format entirely and going straight to Super 8 reel-to-reel.)
I agree that Idiocracy was spot-on with predicting the ubiquitousness of streaming services... and how 'bout the content? The fictional Ow! My Balls! (on "The Violence Channel") might as well have been the evolutionary next step in the Jackass series.
Incidentally, Jackass II was released right around the same time as Idiocracy, and grossed $80 million. And yes, 2022 has seen the release of the sixth film in the Jackass franchise. Do I sound judgemental? Really, I'm not. Mostly.
Also, since you and Mike Judge raised the issue of offspring and socioeconomic status, I went digging for data. Until I found this study, I would have agreed with you about the link between poverty and large families, but apparently, the correlation used to be much stronger decades ago than it is today?
I know, I know -- we started out with a discussion of a satire, and now I'm pulling up demographic research papers. I've always thought that a bigger issue down the pipeline will be finding jobs for what we might deem as "unskilled" labor. The unskilled labor force keeps growing, but thanks to technology, the number of jobs for unskilled humans keeps decreasing. Not a good combo when it comes to societal stability. Enter the "People Scoops" of Soylent Green.
Idiocracy was loaded with wall-to-wall visual gags, many of which involved scatalogical humor, from the hybrid couch/toilets to the medical assessment devices... to the monster trucks at the film's conclusion. In contrast, Mike Judge's earlier Office Space eschewed those sorts of crass jokes during the course of inflicting slow-burn pain on corporate peon Peter Gibbons.
Is it possible to dial down the tone without giving it a Black Mirror vibe? I'm also thinking of an '80s Twilight Zone tale called "Examination Day," where every child was given intelligence tests on their 10th birthday... and woe befell anyone who scored too high. Not exactly a barrel of laughs.
It all boils down to who we're ridiculing, right? Office Space poked fun at corporate culture and company bigwigs. Those are pretty acceptable targets, because A) they're figures of power; and B) most everyone has experienced frustration on some level when dealing with those entities, so a filmmaker doesn't really have to tweak reality too much in order to generate a laugh.
With Idiocracy, we're pretty much making fun of people who would be considered "lower-class" today. (And actually, this starts during the present-day intro -- case in point, the character "Upgrayedd.") Maybe that's another component that didn't quite jive with me?
I hadn't heard of Don't Look Up until you mentioned it, Bobby. It's so, so tough to make a strong political comedy, because inevitably, a filmmaker will choose to score a political point over making a Grade-A joke.
Do you have any favorites in the genre? I'm going with Election, which was a brutal takedown of the inanity of political campaigns, within the microcosm of a high-school race for class president.
Wow, you definitely nailed it with the point that Idiocracy is making fun of lower-class (or just regular average) people. For a successful filmmaker to do that is a form of punching down which doesn't jive with me either.
Election is a great example of political comedy. I feel like my favorites would be in the vein of Armando Iannucci's work, i.e. The Thick of It, Veep, In The Loop, Death of Stalin.
Iannucci spotlights the behind-the-scenes foibles of people in these sacrosanct political positions and reveals what boobs they can be. I would like to see his take on Woodrow Wilson's incapacitation, and how Wilson's wife Edith propped him up to finish out his term to prevent Vice-President Thomas Marshall from succeeding him. I think he would eviscerate the administration brilliantly.
My final thoughts on Idiocracy: an incendiary, if abrasive, satire on consumerism, though one that perhaps appropriately stays a cult classic with a niche following, rather than an enduring piece of American cinema.
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