I’ll admit, like many of the great unwashed of 2006, that I completely missed Idiocracy the first time it came around. I barely even remember what kind of movies I was into back then - probably a bit of Pan’s Labyrinth, probably a bit of Borat - but I do know that with the likes of South Park going strong around that time, I was probably content enough with the American satire on television to bother with anything feature-length. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who thought this - a gross of under $500k during the film’s entire run in theaters is a pretty clear indicator that only the savvy few cared enough to watch it. Certainly, nobody expected it to become the cult classic it is today. If the opinions of the present-day Internet masses are anything to go by, those intrepid film-goers can congratulate themselves for picking a winner. Mike Judge’s vision of an America’s future - a future as disheartening as it is dumb - is one that is now generally regarded as uncannily accurate for a nation that has culturally straddled both the lines of sophistication and anti-intellectualism since the 20th century. And boy, does it have quite the following as a result of that too.
Its status in this crazy, bizarre year of 2016 is also noteworthy. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Idiocracy’s first theatrical release - an advent that in so many other parallel universes, probably still doesn’t matter. It also marks yet another U.S presidential election too - one that has truly been a head-to-head for the ages. Trump v Hilary, Clinton v The Donald, Pariah v pariah - it doesn’t matter what you call it, this particular race for the White House - thanks not only to the runners but also the people supporting them - is probably the most unbearably retarded dirt-slinging match in modern political history. Many of its observers have blamed both a media and society that has increasingly come to favour the vigorous dumbing-down of topical discourse for how poorly it’s reflected on the nation as a collective intelligence. Add this furore to the ever-present ability of online film buffs to find forgotten movies, hype them to the moon, and - BOOM! All of a sudden, Judge’s dystopian sci-fi comedy is now an underappreciated stroke of genius in the right place at the right time.
Actual viewing reveals that it doesn’t quite deserve such a glowing evaluation, but it’s incredibly easy to see how one could have come about. Mike Judge, after all, is a creator who is absolutely worthy of the acclaim surrounding his works - if you have the likes of Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill and Office Space to fill your cabinet of achievements, you more than deserve to be considered brilliant. With Idiocracy, his stab at predicting America’s place - or plight - years down the line, is also the kind of idea you’d expect from a mind that has always been well-connected to the pulse of the U.S social landscape. It’s an idea that is also terrifying in its notion - just what would happen if the supposed geniuses, visionaries and other bright people of the country simply stopped breeding, to the point that they were overtaken by the dumb ones at a rate so alarming that it triggered an unstoppable cultural apocalypse for the human race?
Despite what some of the movie’s most fervent evangelists might tell you, it’s not a reality we have to deal with, thankfully - but it is one that the film’s protagonist, U.S military officer Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), is flung headlong into. A soldier so utterly average that he manages to occupy the exact-middle of every curve that military report graphs can project, Joe is earmarked for a top-secret science program that involves the testing of a new, ultra-high tech sleep chamber. His incredible mediocrity is one of the big reasons for his selection - simply put, he’s so undistinguished that nobody will kick up a fuss about him if he ‘disappears’ as a result of the experiment going wrong. He’s joined by another participant: Rita (Maya Rudolph), a prostitute on the run from her pimp, who is deemed just as disposable to society with the difference that she actually has a good reason to go hiding for a while. With the program initiated and the pair put into isolated hibernation, everything looks set for them to be woken up within one year when the experiment concludes - if not for the fact that the army lieutenant in charge of the project gets himself arrested for starting his own prostitution ring (an unexpected consequence of his need to get into vice circles to secure an ideal female candidate).
In a perfect case of American military bureaucracy exacting itself, the project’s status without an overseer goes from classified to immediately forgotten about: even the very laboratory it’s still running in ends up getting a Fuddrucker’s built over it. Even through all this time, Joe and Rita still lay dormant inside their capsules - a slumber that ends up lasting 500 years, when Joe is eventually and unceremoniously woken up by his chamber getting unearthed in a massive garbage avalanche, flinging it into the house of one of America’s future citizens. The answer to why exactly there’s been a garbage avalanche though isn’t pretty - and neither is discovering the kind of individual who makes up the U.S citizenry in 2505.
In the centuries that have followed, American society has spiralled into abject, slobbish stupidity. The very reason for this is the previously-mentioned shift in breeding rate of the nation’s supposed jocks, rednecks and other numbskulls over the intellectuals who decided their lives weren’t worth the bother of kids. Apply this shift to a five-century period and you have an America that has descended into the neo-neanderthal age: a modern-day Flintstones’ Bedrock without the comedic charm, a place where the biggest show on television is a Jackass-inspired tale of high art called Ow! My Balls!, and a wasteland where garbage mountains line the horizon because people have become too lazy and too mentally challenged to deal with them. Joe soon realizes the full horror of the situation he’s woken up to when it dawns on him that, even with his inimitable averageness, he is a man of intelligence that transcends everyone around him - and having even a semblance of smarts is enough to make you a hated outcast.
The only goal for Joe, and eventually Rita - who’s also woken up and discovered she can easily make a fortune in this world through just how gullible the male mouthbreathers around her have become - is to get back to 2005, whichever way they can. It’s a hunt for a simple resolution that the film does a good job of dragging out over its 80+ minute run without it ever becoming too dull - mostly thanks to the film’s early setup being so well done, and for the majority of the cast genuinely enjoying the increasingly ludicrous situations they’re given. Particularly in the film’s opening half, the aptness of Idiocracy’s take on an America ruled by its idiots is incredibly frequent - and is also scarily convincing. It’s very easy to believe that if the country’s low-lives ran the asylum, that billboard advertisements would be punctuated by expletives and threatening language, and that Carl’s Jr. would operate as a welfare board as well as offer you ‘extra big-ass fries’ with your burger. It’s the mark of any capable satire, and it might well be stating the obvious, but Idiocracy makes great of its early going simply by doing what so many of its genre have also done - by placing its jokes firmly in a territory that anyone fearful of the anti-intellectual revolution could imagine, without much effort.
It’s also a ‘what if’ scenario that is ripe for some serious exploration into the context of what makes human society what it is - making it rather frustrating that despite its initial good form, Idiocracy’s second half fiercely puts the brakes on this satirical dissection. The jokes either dry up or repeat themselves, the writing doesn’t quite hit the same marks of the first 40 minutes, and it becomes apparent that the film begins to become confined by its main pitch - choosing to stay as one long punchline about how dumb the American underclass are, rather than a multi-layered critique of how they’ve come about in the first place. Oddly, this dip in quality coincides with the on-screen arrival of Terry Crews’ character, U.S President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, who is easily the best thing about the whole movie and a major factor in helping the movie avoid a descent to complete sterility during its conclusion. Crews’ own enthusiasm marries nicely with the larger-than-life role he’s given - a hilarious TV-evangelist-by-way-of-professional-wrestler head of state caricature - and his State of the Union address in particular to a Congress whooping and cheering as if they were actually at an Evangelical church sermon is definitely a highlight. It’s a godsend too - by the time of his appearance, Idiocracy’s comedy is threatening to go so far south that it starts feeling as dumb as the people it’s attempting to parody.
Crews isn’t alone in putting in a shift here though - It is ultimately the acting across the whole cast that keeps the thing afloat. Special mention must also be given to Dax Shepard as Frito, the idiot attorney who not only serves as the guy whose house gets half-demolished by Joe’s sudden re-emergence into the world, but also as the main lens through which the viewer gets to see just how stupid America’s people have become. Shepard definitely gets to enjoy - and transcend all levels of hilarious simpletonry with their delivery - most of the film’s best lines. The script also gives Maya Rudolph’s Rita a chance to sassily shine with some great one-liners too - an opportunity Rudolph takes full advantage of - and Luke Wilson, as the perfectly boring, perfectly affable Joe, also offers the movie the equally perfect straight guy from which to play all its farce off of. When the writing starts to hit the wall, it is the total sum of these performances - and nothing less would have done - that get Idiocracy over the line when its plot begins to tire.
What also tires - and troubles - with Idiocracy is that there is a fairly insidious message underneath all of its mockery and caricaturing when it comes to America’s class divide. Its black-and-white reasoning of ‘intelligent’ and ‘dumb’ is the kind of dirty, false smearing that the self-perceived bright thinkers of the left have been inflicting up on the American lower classes for years. Jokes about how only stupid people go to burger joints, monster truck rallies and drink Gatorade are all well and good when you just want to crack a gag or two. But when you’re combining such reasoning with the film’s very premise of the lower classes outbreeding the higher ones because they’re too ‘stupid’ to do anything but have kids, you start to make very unsubtle suggestions about poverty and privilege - suggestions that themselves don’t really classify as particularly intelligent.
Its fans will point to the rise of Donald Trump as potential President as justification for Idiocracy’s new-found reputation as a sublimely accurate prediction of our supposed age of dumb. It isn’t, mostly because America isn’t growing dumber - it’s just suffering from the side-effect of an Internet that has hyper-connected everyone to the views they never would have been exposed to in the pre-Web age. Trump definitely does command a following of whom numerous individuals are expressing opinions that should have stayed in that era - there is no question of that. But the defining factor behind his popularity isn’t stupidity - it’s a far more complex combination of economic decline in certain regions of the States, coupled with the growing dissatisfaction of disenfranchised poor whites with the traditional American political system. History has already taught us how easily manipulated the under-privileged can be under such factors.
But as a film, Idiocracy does at least deserve some of the renown it has gained among viewers and critics, 10 years from its inception. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a fairly dated satire that while occasionally hilarious and effective, is entirely dependent on one single idea that isn’t funny enough, nor ever gets developed enough, to justify the level of cult fervour it’s given birth to. But the left - of which I consider myself a part of - can be as prone to snap judgments just like the right can. Most viewers will be too busy laughing at Idiocracy’s goofball humour to notice that such reactionaryism underpins its laughs. They’ll amuse themselves at the billboard ads yelling ‘Fuck you!’, and give a wry sigh at just how much of a reflection it is on the U.S’ present-day ‘dumbed down’ media. They’ll also overlook the fact that that very same media is also in part being delivered by iPhone-fawning, viral-content obsessed millenials like themselves. It’s an inconvenient hypocrisy that’s been lost under all of the recent hype that the film has received, but the legacy that’s being demanded for Idiocracy is only partially about celebrating art capturing society. It’s also another ritual exercise for the liberal intelligentsia to deride the poor with as well.