The “Watch This” section is essentially a place for me to talk about my favourite films. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006) probably seems like an odd starting point, but I firmly believe that it is possibly the most unfairly maligned and criminally under seen of all films. It’s a film that I have watched at least once a year since its initial release and which becomes more prescient with each passing year.
Fox who were responsible for the distribution of the film provided the bare minimum of marketing and opened it in less than ten cities. There is a reasonable school of thought that this was due to the unflattering portrait that the film paints of corporate America, including a particularly brilliant parody of Fox News. Whilst there may be some truth in this, I think it was more likely that they simply had no idea what the film was.
In my opinion, Idiocracy is one of the great science-fiction films of the past decade. When most people think of science-fiction it’s an action packed Star Wars or Star Trek style space opera with space ships, robots, lasers and lots of action. While these films can be extremely entertaining, the actual “science” part of the equation is somewhat lacking. In my opinion the the most interesting science-fiction films are those based on an event or series of events occurring on Earth and the impact of these events on society.
What makes this form of science-fiction particularly interesting is that a memorable world is set up to allow the film to provide an insight on our current society. District 9 provides a commentary on racism, refugees and segregation. Children of Men shows the fragility of the social order and how quickly a society without hope of a future can collapse. Blade Runner and Terminator 2: Judgement Day are warnings on both unchecked advances in technology and man’s destructive influence on the environment.
Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop is probably an ideological sibling of Idiocracy. Like Robocop, Idiocracy vividly creates a future version of a polluted America where a handful of corporations seemingly run all commerce and social services, advertising is all pervasive and the media is dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Although both films are biting satires on their contemporary society set in a future vision of America, on the surface Robocop is a loud, violent action film which has a broader appeal to those who completely miss the underlying commentary. Whereas Idiocracy straight up plays the satire for laughs.
Idiocracy is now nearly ten years old. Subsequently the movie set only 490 years into the future and the progression of mankind in the past decade makes it seem reasonable that mankind is well on track to degenerate to the society depicted in the film by the year 2505. One of the strengths of Idiocracy is that it rapidly manoeuvres between hilarious and outlandish extensions of the present day, to a line or an image that is jarringly close to contemporary society.
One of the reasons that Idiocracy is so easily dismissed is that the dialogue is not only exceptionally coarse and politically incorrect, but often profoundly inane. As described by the narrator “the English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang and various grunts. Joe was able to understand them, but when he spoke in an ordinary voice he sounded pompous and faggy to them”. Apart from the incredible wit that the repeated use of this language is able to build up to, it is excellent shorthand to quickly define the stupidity of the population of 2505.
The dialogue from the early scene of Joe’s encounter at St God’s Memorial Hospital with Dr Lexus (Justin Long) gives a near perfect introduction to this world. The Doctor’s clothes and his office are covered in advertising and rather than the expected intelligence and assurance of a medical professional, Joe is advised after his diagnosis of “you talk like a fag and your shit’s all retarded” that “don’t worry scro. there’s lots of tards out there living really kick ass lives. My ex wife is tarded. She’s a pilot now”.
The basic story is that as part of a top secret military project (The Human Hibernation Experiment), the army selected the most remarkably average person they could find in the service. Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is top of the bell curve on every measure and with no family he makes the perfect test subject. Due to difficulties in finding a female test subject a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph) is put into the other pod. The experiment was intended to test the hibernation equipment by putting Joe and Rita into pods for one year. Due to the unorthodox behaviour of the officer in charge of the project, it is shut down and as a result of its top secret status the hibernation pods are dumped into landfill and Joe and Rita are left in hibernation for 500 years.
We are then shown a series of examples as to how society has been dumbed down over the centuries, until the hibernation pods are disturbed by the “2505 Great Garbage Avalanche”. Joe awakes after his pod crashes through the window of Frito’s (Dax Shepard) apartment interrupting his viewing of the hit show Ow My Balls! The story is then a man out of time tale with the notable difference to similar tales being that the travellers from the past are by far the smartest people on the planet.
The film follows Joe and Rita as they try and navigate their way through this baffling world. After an IQ test Joe is found to have attained the highest score in history and is made special advisor to President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. The President promises that Joe would either fix all of the problems facing their society, or Camacho would “kick Joe’s smart balls all the way up into Joe’s smart mouth and kick his ass back to jail”.
Rather than going into too much detail on the plot or to rehash every joke in the film, I would rather look at how alarmingly accurate parts of Idiocracy have become over the ten years since the film’s release. The depictions of corporate power, advertising, the media, democracy and justice in Idiocracy are all quite recognisable in light of recent events.
In the world of Idiocracy advertising is omnipresent. Every screen, space, name, conversation and item of clothing is an opportunity for advertising. As media consumption has begun to change with more an more content viewed on-line, advertising is now inserted into virtually every on-line activity. With this in mind, the screen bordered by advertising that Frito is using to watch Ow My Balls! doesn’t look particularly out of the ordinary today.
In Idiocracy, the bulk of the characters’ names in the future include product names (Frito, Judge Hank BMW, Dr Lexus). It is unclear whether these names are the result of simply being commonly accepted names or if they are paid product placements. Given the current trend of parents naming their children after corporations or products increases the likelihood that these would just be commonly accepted names. There are already real children in the world with the names Facebook, Nike, Ikea, Google, ESPN, Audi and Wrigley Fields… If you have the stomach for it, this Reddit thread on terrible baby names will give you some idea of how close this part of the film is to contemporary society.
In the film corporations appear to have influence over every facet of government to the extent that the stars on the American flag are the Carl’s Jr logo and the stripes are a series of corporate names featured in the film such as Costco, Carl’s Jr, Tarrlyton’s. In addition to this, the Secretary of State is paid to end every sentence with “brought to you by Carl’s Jr”. While political donors today do so in the hopes of gaining some influence over elected officials, these corporations don’t promote the fact that they are trying to buy influence. However, in a world where the President walks in like a wrestler to address the House of Representin’ to a bombastic theme tune before firing a machine gun, it’s easy to see that advertisers would want to be a part of the spectacle.
In Idiocracy, the drink company Brawndo seeing water as a threat to their profits buys the FDA and the FCC in order to create their own food pyramid which recommends a generous daily intake of Brawndo – The Thirst Mutilator. Just visible (with the help of a pause button) on the billboard advertising Tarrlyton cigarettes is the message “The surgeon general has one lung and a voice box but he could still kick your sorry ass”. The impact of corporate lobbyists on the decision making process of government agencies is devastating in Idiocracy, creating famine and actively promoting dangerous products. This is further complicated by the fact that everyone believes something said in a commercial must be completely factual. There are many recent instances of powerful lobby groups using their money to influence policy on tobacco, firearms, fast food and climate change counter to the public interest.
There is a pervasive commercialisation of sex throughout Idiocracy. Every major corporation seems to sell porn or sex. Starbucks sells “Erotic Coffee For Men” and “Gentleman’s Lattes”, the “adult tax return” is the speciality of H&R Block “the home of the Gentleman’s Rebate” and you can get “adult chicken” at Pollo Borracho. On TV you can watch The Masturbation Network or go to Fox News where the anchors are as biased as you would expect, just wearing less clothes. The main source of print news appears to be the publication “Hot Naked Chicks and World Report”. In the ten years since Idiocracy was released there has been a greater sexualisation of the media and advertising. In part this is related to the rapid growth of internet pornography and its acceptance into the mainstream. Given that fame is now readily created or extended through the judicious use of a sex tape and pornography is only a couple of clicks or the wrong Google search away, a corporate focus on sex doesn’t seem particularly unlikely.
The depiction (or dupicshun) of the justice system in Idiocracy is a terrifying extension of the failures of the current system. The police are portrayed with an uncomfortably similar malice as displayed in the worst of recent events, they are shown firing machine guns and rocket launchers to stop a parked car and respond to any question Joe asks with mace. The role of the media in pre-judging the guilt of the accused is also unpleasantly familiar. Hearings appear to be the natural progression of a Judge Judy courtroom, held in front of jeering crowds with a judge (Stephen Root) playing to the crowd. At least the punitive system hasn’t yet reached the lows depicted in the film. As reported by The Fox News Violence Channel correspondent, Joe is sentenced to “one night’s Rehabilitation” which we later learn is basically the death penalty, but played out in a gladiatorial ring in front of a huge crowd.
Idiocracy is a very funny film, but also one that asks a lot of uncomfortable questions about where society is heading… That said, it is smart enough and funny enough to have Rita frame such a question in the film as: “You think Einstein walked around thinking everyone was a bunch of dumb-shits?” .