We look back at why Idiocracy is still such a hot topic of discussion.
Forget the laws of eugenics and the intricacies of deep sleep science for a second: If you spent the last decade snoozing in a military pod, would you really be shocked to find the world has succumbed to a socio-political apocalypse in the year 2018?
At every turn in what’s been a mind-numbing few years, we’ve found parallels to the one film that warned us what would go wrong if we elected a former porn star and pro wrestler as the President of the United States and allowed our language to deteriorate to a hybrid of “Hillbilly, Valley Girl, Inner-City slang, and various grunts.”
Idiocracy, the 2006 indie comedy from Mike Judge (Office Space, Beavis and Butt Head) and Etan Cohen (Tropic Thunder) follows everyman Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), who agrees to a military experiment that accidentally puts him in a future where intelligence has regressed, making him by far the smartest person in the world.
For a film that couldn’t crack a million dollars at the box office, it maintained a surprising longevity through word of mouth and has become an easy cultural touchstone for any perceived moral or intellectual breakdown in our society. But it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Fox shelved the film for nearly two years and barred it from nationwide theatrical release and screened it in only a handful of major cities. Across the internet, bloggers and media critics suggested a potential backlashfrom advertisers that Judge skewers in the film. When Idiocracy finally peeked its head out into the world on Sept. 1st, 2006, it set off a slow-moving avalanche.
“Idiocracy had no theatrical and everybody was up in arms like, ‘This movie didn’t come out in a movie theater, but you have to see it, it’s insane!’” indie filmmaker Jay Duplass told Decider at the end of a totally unrelated interview, thus proving the film isn’t far from anyone’s mind. “It was like this frenzy about how this incredible movie snuck past theatrical and people were yelling at people, forcing them to watch it. It had it’s own sort of magical experience in that way.”
Idiocracy persists as a must-watch cult classic, not just because it feels as though Judge and Cohen looked into a crystal ball, but it’s also as digestible of a futuristic dystopia as we’ve ever seen in popular culture.
Stumbling across this film late at night on some god-forsaken secondary HBO channel was like being handed The Grasshopper Lies Heavy: For Dummies on the hush. It made sex feel dirty for all the wrong reasons, with chivalry on a downward trajectory into the pages of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. And when its main character needed “rehabilitation” for talking all “faggy,” the film did The Hunger Games before the YA-dystopian novel frenzy became a Hollywood cash cow.
Idiocracy was granted new life as a recurring jab during a tense 2016 election. The legacy of a film that Rolling Stone once called the “smartest stupid movie ever made” is up for review far sooner than we anticipated, and the retrospectives have been pouring in across the internet:
Our current situation is far better than skyscrapers being held together by rubber band, or mountains of trash mounds that overcast major cities. But we also have climate change happening right in front of us and still there are deniers. At least in Mike Judge’s future, the nitwits see water affecting the growth of plants and believe it. Come to think of it, a world where the opening remark of the State of the Union is “Shit,” as Terry Crews’ bombastic President Camacho readies to sling empty promises and obscenities, doesn’t seem all that far off. It’s pretty much happening right now.
More damning than Idiocracy’s politics is the way the film looks at the over-corporatization of society and technology; “Ass,” 90 minutes of a farting ass, swept the Oscars; Starbucks long ago discontinued Pumpkin Spice Lattes in favor of dispensing handjobs; Water is replaced with sports drinks and if said sports drink company went out of business, the entire economy collapses. These jokes, slightly to the left (or right) of reality, are a Judge trademark, which he continues to use over at HBO as he wrings every last laugh out of the tech industry on Silicon Valley.
“Our jokes would be like, ‘I’m going to build a wall around the earth.’ They were only incrementally stupider,” Cohen told TIME earlier this year. “Writing Idiocracy was just following your id. Now unfortunately our id has become our candidate for President.”
“Three or four years ago, I started getting comments about it, people discovering it, and it just keeps building. Now every other Twitter comment I get is about Idiocracy, and how it’s a documentary now,” Judge told The Daily Beast this year.
“At first, I was just thinking, yeah, that’s nice to hear, but then very specific things, like Carl’s Jr. announcing that they were going to have a completely robotic, non-employee store—and it’s Carl’s Jr. in the movie. Then there’s this thing called the Fellatio Café in Switzerland where you get blowjobs with coffee, and we had the Starbucks thing in there. And then Donald Trump being in the WWF before, and talking about his penis size. It’s just one specific thing after another!”
One major plot point dragged the film down for some critics. Gizmodomade the case for Idiocracy as a cruel film for the slippery-slope of classism in the story’s introduction that undermines the political satire in the film:
Idiocracy is now our point of reference for the dumbing down of society. Whereas previous generations had movies like Network(1976) that challenged our understanding of possible media-driven futures, millennials have Idiocracy. And while the film expresses an arguably legitimate frustration with our current cultural landscape, it also leads us down a strange and illogical path for creating a better future.
The notion that the subtext of the film suggests waging class warfare, rich (smart) vs. poor (dumb), and accelerating human development by isolating people with more desired traits, certainly complicates the legacy of the film.
Ultimately, the people have spoken through their enthusiasm for the film’s satire. Maybe we’ll look back on Idiocracy in a far-off future and remember it by whether or not we chose to heed its warnings. More likely, we know the human mind regressing to the point of heavily ’bating slobs is the work of science fiction (and that trying to prevent against that borders on the equally scary concept of eugenics).
Forget about power-hungry Big Brother, Idiocracy is the most painfully realistic dystopian world when you consider it’s built around the collective indifference of a society that fails to make impactful, forward-thinking change for generations. It ends with the concept that mankind goes through natural ebbs and flows, some worse than others, but in the context of The Idiocracy Revival of 2016, Joe is as much of a reluctant leader as the clueless sheeple are reluctant voters: “You know things are bad when they’re coming to me for answers”
This story originally ran in 2016.