Consider the state of things in America these days: the deliberately banal vulgarity of its popular arts, its incompetent political leaders with their unbroken record of failure, and not least a rise in intrusive government that, on unsettled days, looks a lot to me like creeping fascism. Over the past few years it’s gotten harder to make out where this country’s headed, and discouragingly easy to wonder if maybe the ideal of collective human progress has become obsolete. This seems to be the bitter conviction driving Idiocracy, a brilliantly conceived, but fitfully executed, comedy about how bad things are likely to get if we keep going where we’re going.
As the name implies, Idiocracy gets most of its jokes from its sci-fi premise, a world 500 years in the future in which intelligence , no longer a favored trait for reproduction, is bred out of humanity. This is outlined for us at the outset by an ostensibly omniscient narrator, classic sci-fi style — although it becomes clear later this device is used at least as much to deliver wisecracks as to clarify what’s going on — who contrasts two couples in the present day, the upper-class Trevor and Carol, and the working-class Clevon and his wife. Their respective IQs (138 and 141 for the well-to-do couple, double digits for the trailer trash) are offered on screen as Carol and Trevor repeatedly express reservations about having children “with the market the way it is” while Clevon, less cautious, propagates prodigiously through a string of unintended pregnancies and adulterous affairs.
As this pattern is repeated billions of times with billions of people over generations, the narrator explains, intelligence is gradually bred out of the human race. If this seems a bit classist, even bordering on xenophobic, you’re probably not too far off the mark. Anxiety over the human species’ genetic legacy tends to provoke those of enlightened contemporary sensibilities, for reasons I probably needn’t belabor. Director Mike Judge, of Office Space (1999) fame, compounds the offense by giving us graphical outlines of Trevor, Carol, and Clevon’s family trees, the former sparse and the latter labyrinthine — but in both cases strictly patrilineal, as though women were mere vessels for perpetuating male seed.
In other words, for a movie that pretends to bewail the death of enlightenment, Idiocracy is often conspicuously unenlightened. This is no less true after the introductory narrated montage wraps up and the movie proper gets underway. Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), a low-level Army bureaucrat, and hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Rita (Maya Rudolph) are enlisted as guinea pigs in a suspended animation experiment and, of course, propelled into the remote future, Rip Van Winkle style, after the experiment goes wrong. Joe, for instance, is chosen for the experiment because of his averageness, a point the movie conveys by plotting his various aptitudes on the middling summits of a series of bell-curve charts, as though the practice of plotting human beings on bell curves were in no way controversial.
Nettlesome though these moments are, Idiocracy isn’t without redemption. Take the performances of its principals. Wilson largely restates the ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-circumstances schtick he used in My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006), but here to particularly good effect, and Rudolph is frequently uproarious — as when Joe and Rita first meet and she, hesitant to name her true profession, claims to be an “artist”/ “Oh,” asks Joe, chatty, “and what do you paint?”, to which she shrugs in an indifferent Tennessee drawl, “I dunno, like people and fruit and shit.”
Also, if it come across vaguely misanthropic, Idiocracy just as often mounts social critiques that are well taken. For instance, against environmental indifference (placed into hibernation and then forgotten, Joe and Rita are inadvertently revived when their cryochambers are jostled by a cascading avalanche of garbage). Or cultural bankruptcy — so that the hit show of the 26th century is “Ow! My Balls!”, which consists solely of an unfortunate gentleman getting racked painfully in the testicles in an endless variety of ways. I’d buy that for a dollar.
In the finest futureshock tradition Idiocracy‘s dystopian tomorrow is part anarchic nightmare and part police state. The fascist imposition here isn’t the cold, efficient intelligence of Orwell but the prejudice born of frivolity and ignorance. People here are uniformly fitted with RFID barcode tattoos, Sign-of-the-Beast style, but not so much so the government can track them (the population is pathologically docile) but because they’d otherwise be unable to manage their basic finances.
In the obligatory show-trial scene after Joe is spotted without a tattoo and captured, we learn that the justice system has become “not only blind, but … rather retarded as well.” “Okay, why you think he done it?” asks the judge, to which the prosecutor rejoins, “Okay, number one … just look at him, your honor.” Concurring that Joe merits reprobation simply by virtue of looking and sounding different, his defense attorney joyfully joins in lambasting him, and the entire court quickly convicts him on the ground that he “talks like a fag” and acts “retarded”.
The script avails itself freely of such epithets — particularly “fag”. which turns up more often and in more permutations than any other movie in memory. At first it’s tempting to be dispirited by this, as one is liable to be by the movie’s class anxieties and its fondness for objective metrics of human worth. But in fact the seemingly injudicious use of the term comes in service of a worthy goal: exposing the intersection of homophobia with a particularly virulent strain of anti-intellectualism, one that should be familiar to any brainy types unfortunate enough to have attended one of America’s fine public junior high schools.
In idiocratic society the faggy is coterminous with the ever-widening boundaries of the intellectually challenging and incomprehensible. Thus is Joe’s masculinity consistently impugned whenever he says something those around him don’t understand — and naturally, in this dumbed-down world, he regularly provokes such defensive responses simply by speaking in ways that would be ordinary today. If the principles of political correctness would dictate that such terms as “fag” never be used in the hopes that they someday fade away, the approach taken here — to deploy them liberally but only to demonstrate the craven way they’re deployed in real life — might prove more effective at combating prejudice over the long term, by making it seem not taboo but merely ignorant and shameful.
Where idiocracy is fraught with prejudice and oppression, it’s also, unsurprisingly, quite poorly managed. Its government (not unlike our current one) seems content to indulge in reactionary fits while neglecting the daily responsibilities of governance, until, like today, the consequences of their neglect become unbearable. When this happens, the president — here not a happy-go-lucky cowboy but a happy-go-lucky pro-wrestler and ex-porn star (Terry Crews) — seeks out Joe, who tests indicate is now the smartest person on Earth.
Summoned to the White House along with Rita, Joe is offered freedom in return for addressing the list of societal ills that has burgeoned while the idiocracy’s citizens indulge in promiscuous sex and busily tar one another as fags and ‘tards”. The economy’s collapsing, most of the machinery is breaking down without anyone competent to repair it, and, most pressingly, the food supply is running out because the Department of Agriculture, idiots that they are, decided it would be a good idea to water America’s crops with Gatorade.
Rita and Joe find most of these problems intractable but detect the possibility for a quick win in reforming the country’s irrigation strategy. They then must convince a reluctant population, at long last, to do something practical for a change by nurturing their lands with regular water — a hard sell because, languishing under an unforgiving network of corporate monopolies, the people have become convinced by Gatorade (in fact a thinly disguised fictionalized company, “Brawndo”) that water is only to be used in toilets.
When it satirizes the ills of rampant corporatism (Costcoes, for instance, now span tens of thousands of aisles and offer law degrees) Idiocracy again acquits itself laudably, but here, as throughout, the guiding principles of its conscience seem inconsistent, as it refers alternately to a likely future we should take great pains to avoid, and evidently professes nostalgia for a past we’re actually better off leaving behind.