An average American is selected as a guinea pig for a top-secret hibernation program... only to be forgotten about, awakening to a moronic future where's now the most intelligent person alive.
What was once a broad science-fiction comedy, Mike Judge’s Idiocracy seems less preposterous with each passing year. It posits a future where idiots have produced more offspring than intellectuals for centuries, resulting in an infantilised world of low-IQ folk who’ve inherited a decaying, nonsensical world as a result. In 2006, this seemed like a highly amusing idea; in 2020, the President of the United States suggested people inject themselves with bleach in a fight against a pandemic.
20th Century Fox effectively abandoned Idiocracy, after delaying its original 2005 release for a year, then only making it available theatrically in seven cities with zero marketing or promotion. Terry Crews gave an interview to GQ Magazine in 2018 that suggested companies that agreed to be featured in the movie weren’t happy with how they were portrayed (e.g. Starbucks also provides hand-jobs in the future). Did nobody read the script? Whatever the reason, Idiocracy grossed a measly $495K and sank Judge’s transition from animation (Beavis & Butthead, King of the Hill) to live-action movies, after the heady promise of cult favourite Office Space (1999). Judge’s attempted comeback, Extract (2009), did make more than Idiocracy ($10.8M), but it left even less of an impact on audiences. At least folk still talk about Idiocracy all these years later. Well, those who saw it.
US Army librarian Cpl Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is chosen to be put into experimental suspended animation, as he’s of distinctly average intelligence and has no family who might miss him if it goes wrong. He’s joined by a hired prostitute called Rita (Maya Rudolph), and the two guinea pigs are dealt a cruel blow when the experiment’s forgotten about and the military base is bulldozed. Five centuries later, a freak accident revives Joe’s sleep chamber and he finds himself in a world where society’s aggressively anti-intellectual, all entertainment is low-brow (the No.1 rated show is “Ow! My Balls!”), the economy is only driven by consumerism, and everyone’s a cretin. But this also means ‘Average Joe’ is now the smartest man on the planet by default, and that proves to be both a gift and curse as he tries to find a way to go back in time.
Idiocracy is a one-joke movie, but what a fantastically elastic joke. It’s a great concept that allowed Mike Judge and co-writer Etan Cohen (who bounced back with 2008’s Tropic Thunder) to extrapolate an entire world from the premise that everyone’s a simpleton. And while some of the jokes are a little obvious, others are delightfully cartoonish (the image of a collapsing skyscraper being lashed to a straight one with enormous ropes), and subtler ones tickle your funnybone (politicians work at The House of Representin’). But when we reach the point when the President (Crews) is revealed to be a former wrestler and porn star, who’s hired a bunch of braindead lackeys to form his cabinet, Idiocracy takes on a different vibe today. America genuinely elected a former reality TV star who sleeps with porn stars in 2016, meaning Joe’s 500-year trip could have been 10 and might have seemed similarly outre in some ways.
The film remains enjoyable thanks to its flood of jokes, many of them tucked away in background signs, or in the clever logic of the set design and costumes. The setup and storyline’s less successful, as it makes no sense why the US Army would be involved in suspended animation experiments, or that they’d choose people of moderate intelligence (wouldn’t you prefer an idiot?). So there’s a lot of hand-waving required to get Joe to this crazy future. And I don’t know why Rita had to be a prostitute, beyond the fact Judge had gags in mind about her pimp Upgrayedd (Brad ‘Scarface’ Jordan). I like the idea Joe becomes a valued part of the government once he realises he can solve the nation’s food crisis by reminding them to feed plants water instead of energy drink, but everything around the edges is only there to find ways for us to explore other areas of this future ‘Umerica’.
Luke Wilson’s fine as a character who’s supposed to be a literal ‘Ordinary Joe’, to contrast how much his averageness makes him special compared to nincompoops like his lawyer Frito Pendejo (Dax Shepard). When I first watched Idiocracy, I had no idea who Maya Rudolph was, but she’s a bigger international star today than she was in 2006, so it was a nice surprise to be reminded she’s the second lead of this. But her character’s not the best developed and she doesn’t get many good moments of her own, as the attention of the script is primarily on building this world on a low budget of an estimated $2-4M.
Idiocracy’s chintzy VFX, which includes lots of obvious matte paintings, should be a black mark against the film, but it provides a lot of unexpected charm. It’s almost a live-action/cartoon hybrid at times! And it seems oddly fitting this imbecilic future should be represented in a style that looks a bit dumb and amateur. While it hasn’t stayed in the public conversation since it was released, this is mostly down to how under-the-radar it remains… but Idiocracy can now be seen as a worryingly accurate, if exaggerated, look at where America was headed in the mid-2000s.
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USA | 2006 | 84 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
director: Mike Judge.
writers: Mike Judge & Etan Cohen (story by Mike Judge).
starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Crews, David Herman, Justin Long & Andrew Wilson.