Dusting ‘Em Off is a rotating, free-form feature that revisits a classic album, film, or moment in pop-culture history. This week, Clint Worthington returns to the often-cited 2006 cult film Idiocracy.
“Looks like Idiocracy is turning out to be a documentary.”
We’ve all heard that sentiment before, or shared it ourselves, somewhere on social media. Whether it’s a news story about a criminal getting themselves busted in a really obvious and stupid way or Donald Trump’s latest blunder in 2016’s garbage-fire presidential campaign, for many, Mike Judge’s 2006 film Idiocracy has become shorthand for the kind of dumbed-down, anti-intellectual future we fear is on the horizon. Even the film’s co-writer, Etan Cohen, said as much in a recent interview. Ten years on, Idiocracy maintains its hold as the millennial answer to Network. But should it?
Poor Mike Judge often has a hell of a time getting his small, idiosyncratic film projects off the ground — even when they succeed, it’s late in their lifespans. Just like his pitch-perfect 1998 office comedy Office Space, Idiocracy had a rocky start; after some dodgy test screenings, the movie was dumped unceremoniously in 130 theaters in 2006 with next to no promotion. Once it was released on DVD, the film found new life, perhaps the last real cult hit to come out of the era of physical media and video-store scouring.
Idiocracy’s premise is simple: As part of an experiment to prolong human life through cryogenics, a thoroughly average Army desk jockey named Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is frozen along with Rita (Maya Rudolph), a prostitute, only for them to wake up in a distant future bereft of intellectual curiosity and rife with corporate branding. Everyone is an overweight, sex-obsessed couch potato with a patois described as “a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner city slang, and various grunts,” and corporations have infiltrated every facet of American society with the kind of benign ubiquity that would make Robert Reich keel over.
Satire, especially that of the science fiction variety, has always taken a broad, cautionary look at where cultural and social trends are taking us. Almost all of these futurist films follow pretty similar beats: a world run by corporations, a ruined environment, limited freedoms, and endless cycles of poverty. Idiocracy dabbles in those tropes, but trades insidiousness for idiocy: We’ve simply ‘bred’ ourselves into a society that indulges its worst instincts, usually following the kinds of values stereotypical of the American far-right. The average citizen of Judge’s speculative future leans heavily on toxic masculinity, corporations are so beloved that characters are named after their favorite products, and so on.
Judge’s vision of the future is pretty admirably realized in Idiocracy, especially considering its paltry $4 million budget. Towers of garbage litter the cities, and contemporary fashion rests somewhere between ‘construction worker’ and ‘Dallas Cowboys cheerleader’. Even the film’s sickly yellow color palette instills a sense of comic unease. For a micro-budgeted sci-fi parable, Idiocracy’s tacky-chic look is suitably haunting and over-the-top.
Honestly, there’s a lot to like about Idiocracy’s useful idiots: charmingly misplaced bravado is a staple of comedy dating back to Shakespeare, and a world full of Mountain Dew-swilling Nick Bottoms is rife for gags. Whether it’s Justin Long’s doctor (“It says on your chart that you’re fucked up, you talk like a fag, and your shit’s all retarded”) or Dax Shepard’s lawyer (“I’m gonna mistrial my foot up your ass if you don’t shut up!”), everyone gets a chance to let their pro wrestling-fueled id loose to hilarious results.
Like so many of these dystopian futures, the characters of Idiocracy are secondary to the world they inhabit, which is where the film shows some cracks. The biggest victims of this problem are Wilson’s Joe and Rudolph’s Rita; by definition, Joe’s straight man pales in comparison to the big, exaggerated performances of Terry Crews, Shepard, Long, and others, who throw themselves into the half-wit braggadocio the culture of 2505 craves. Rudolph suffers in particular, as Rita’s presence in the film serves mostly for the filmmakers to make cheap cracks about sex workers and set up jokes about her bombastic pimp, Upgrayedd (“Two Ds, for a double dose of his pimping”). Rita’s purpose as anything other than a love interest for Joe is a mystery, and even Rudolph can’t make Brawndo out of the material she’s given.
For all its impeccably-timed comedy and Judge’s command of tone, Idiocracy has unfortunately become a self-serious siren song over the last decade for the kind of people who post Condescending Wonka memes without any irony on Facebook. Given 10 years of hindsight, Idiocracy’s weird bio-truths about intelligence and class don’t age particularly well: the prologue, comparing a rich, well-educated couple’s reticence to have kids until the time is right to promiscuous redneck Clevon, practically becomes a case study in confirmation bias. Sure, we titter a bit at the uptight Trevor and Carol, but the butt of the joke is Clevon, the implication being that he’s dumb because he’s poor. From that prologue alone, it’s become easy for your cousin on Twitter to champion Idiocracy as a warning that the stupid poors are ruining society, which is a bit more disquieting than the over-the-top satire probably ever intended.
At the same time, it’s hard to deny the lizard-brain appeal of Idiocracy’s message, along with the weird ways it has predicted some of modern society’s baser impulses. In the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, there’s something to be said about a movie that lays bare the general public’s frustration with ivory-tower elites and the anti-intellectualism that often goes along with it. There’s something for everyone to point at in Idiocracy’s gutter-trash world of 2505 and say, “Look! This is where we’ll be if those other people are in charge.” However much it may make us feel better about ourselves, let’s be honest: We’re watching a film about Dax Shepard pooping in his lounge chair and loving when Terry Crews fires a shotgun in the air, so maybe we’re all a little more like Clevon than we’d like to admit.
Perhaps the worst part of Idiocracy’s status as a cautionary tale for the ‘dumbing down’ of our society is that, to be frank, it might be better to live in President Camacho’s America than what we have now. As dumb and distracted by empty spectacle as Idiocracy’s citizenry is, it’s tempered with a naiveté that’s harmless compared to today’s openly discriminatory and harmful cultural attitudes. Despite being a black president, no one calls for Camacho’s birth certificate, and he’s so beloved he can even ride in open-air motorcades without fear of assassination. He listens to his constituents and even happily steps down when he realizes Not Sure could run the country better. Camacho may be dumb, but he’s responsible, and that’s what makes him so compelling. (Apart from Crews’ breakout performance, of course, which remains as impeccable today as it was then.)
Some aspects have aged more gracefully than others in the decade following Idiocracy’s release, but Mike Judge’s little-satire-that-could still deserves every bit of its cult status. The performances are solid, and Judge crafts a bubbly, bonkers world of well-meaning dopes. If nothing else, Idiocracy earns its existence just for bringing the world Terry Crews, a comedic saint for the modern era if ever one existed. Just be careful about holding it up as a pitch-perfect portent of everything that’s wrong with America.