The DVD of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy goes on sale this week. Because 20th Century Fox suppressed the original theatrical release, this is the first time a large audience will be able to see the film—and this is good news for America. In his 2005 review, which is reprinted below, Reihan Salam called Idiocracy “easily the most potent political film of the year,” and argued that it provides a necessary wake-up call for a narcissistic culture on the brink of self-destruction.
Mike Judge could have gone the easy route. His last movie, Office Space, became a smash hit on DVD because the frat boy douchebags he mercilessly mocked became its biggest fans. But rather than make another feel-good comedy, he’s made the extremely bizarre Idiocracy, which you might call a feel-bad comedy about the silent killer of American civilization, namely our collective stupidity. A feel-bad comedy that has grossed just over $400,000 to date, barely enough to cover the cost of spray-tanning the stars of Laguna Beach. Given that the release was limited to six cities—and that there was literally no promotion—the poor showing makes perfect sense. The tragedy is that Idiocracy is easily the most potent political film of the year, and the most stirring defense of traditional values since Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
This should come as no surprise. Office Space, perhaps Judge’s most celebrated work, appears at first glance to be a simple shits-and-giggles romp about how work sucks. Buried just below the surface, however, is a critique of the modern American workplace and of the materialism that makes us slaves to our machines (particularly our fax machines). Not only are we supposed to work mind-numbing, soul-sapping jobs without complaint—we’re supposed to love every minute of it. When Peter, our hero, leaves his desk job to become a manual laborer, he breaks with bourgeois convention to embrace a vigorous, manlier, more traditional life.
If Office Space is about taking responsibility for your own happiness, Idiocracy is about something larger, namely our responsibility for our shared future. Like all the best dystopian fables, Idiocracy is a scathing indictment of our own society. And so it begins in the present with a brief portrait of the villains who are destroying America, represented here by an affluent couple and an imbecile ne’er-do-well named Clevon. The two yuppies are shown agonizing over the decision to have a child. It’s never the right time, until the right time finally comes—and the couple is infertile. The yuppies will leave no legacy behind. Clevon, in contrast, lustily and enthusiastically impregnates not only his wife but a bevy of gap-toothed harridans, each one dumber and uglier than the next. The screen slowly fills with his spawn, foreshadowing the nightmarish future to come.
What follows is a series of events, including an all-too-brief discussion of the distinction between a pimp’s love and the love of a square, that send hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Rita (Maya Rudolph) and the extremely average Army Pvt. Joe Bowers (Luke Wilson) into separate hibernation chambers for a supersecret military experiment. Like so many of us, Bowers has spent his life avoiding responsibility. Whenever his commanding officer tells him to “lead, follow, or get out of the way,” he invariably chooses to “get out of the way.” So, when he is tapped for this dubious honor, he’s none too pleased.
Fully expecting to wake up after a year, Joe instead emerges from his icy casket in the year 2505, a nightmarish future populated exclusively by Clevon-like simpletons. The last geniuses died perfecting advanced methods for regrowing hair and sustaining erections, beautifully illustrated by a quick cutaway shot of a lab monkey with what looks to be a Jheri curl, a lit stogie, and a gigantic boner. As a result, the machines that have kept the masses of morons happy and fed are falling apart. Starvation looms as crops die across the land, all because Americans, or rather Uh-mericans, are too stupid to water them with anything besides a colorful sports drink rich in electrolytes.
At times, you get the sense that Idiocracy is Mike Judge’s penance for unleashing Beavis and Butt-Head on the world more than a decade ago. The most popular film in 2505 is called Ass, a lineal descendent of Judge’s own outré creation that features two pairs of human buttocks audibly discharging methane gas as though they were dueling banjos. Though no words are spoken, Ass is said to have won an Oscar for best screenplay.
Because Joe occasionally enunciates, he is immediately under suspicion as a “faggy” and otherwise obnoxious person, infractions that somehow lead to his incarceration. Eventually, Joe—with the help of the defrosted Rita—chooses not to “get out of the way.” At great personal risk to himself (he narrowly escapes death at the hands of a monster truck built to resemble an enormous metal phallus), Joe saves the world from starvation. But he also saves himself from his own laziness and self-absorption, not least of all when he starts a family with Rita.
Now, Idiocracy isn’t perfect. Despite being only 84 minutes long, it drags at points and feels more than a little shaggy. Plus, there’s obviously something a little creepy about all this. Is Mike Judge really saying that some people should breed and others shouldn’t? Well, sort of. But he’s also taking on the laziness and the self-absorption, and the materialism and the willful ignorance, of his own audience. Watch Dogville or Fahrenheit 9/11 or even The Passion of the Christ and you get the distinct sense that you’re being congratulated for believing the right things. Rare is the movie that challenges your beliefs. Rarer still is the movie that tells you you’re a fat moron, and that you should be ashamed of yourself. The unmarried adultescents swarming the cities, the DINKs who’ve priced families with children out of the better suburbs, the kids who never read—these are Hollywood’s most prized demographics, and Mike Judge has them squarely in his sights. Is it any wonder 20th Century Fox decided Idiocracy would never be boffo box office?
Idiocracy challenges a central article of faith in American life, the notion that we are destined for moral, material, and intellectual progress. And what if things really are getting worse? What if, more to the point, we really are getting dumber? Recently there’s been some troubling evidence that the arrow of intelligence is pointing downward. A British study found that the intelligence of British 11-year-olds has actually declined during the last 20 years. Data from the Danish draft board indicate that intelligence peaked in the late-1990s and has now fallen to levels not seen since 1991, when MC Hammer-inspired parachute pants were all the rage. If that’s not enough to make you slit your wrists, I don’t know what is.
To his everlasting credit, Mike Judge doesn’t counsel despair. Instead, he’s telling thoughtful Americans that we can’t expect other people to solve our problems for us. If you’re alarmed by the callousness and the crassness of our culture, which you certainly should be, do something about it. Lead or follow. Getting out of the way is not an option. Failing that, you should at least try to outbreed the people you hate most.