Justin Stewart Revisits Idiocracy
During Donald J. Trump’s political rise in 2014–15, the first person to post a thought akin to “Idiocracy was a documentary!” may have been expressing a cogent, original point about the sad, dumbed-down, and celebrity-driven state of U.S. election politics and its resemblance to same in the 2006 Mike Judge film. But such a comparison was already an unhelpful social-media cliché even before the think pieces started rolling in (real headlines: “The Many Signs That Mike Judge’s Idiocracy Is Upon Us”, “Is Donald Trump the Herald of Idiocracy?”). Most of the idiocies parodied and heightened by Judge and co-screenwriter Etan Cohen—ubiquitous advertising, coarsened language, a lowbrow taste for ultraviolence—were already “upon us” in 2006 and before, and juxtapositions between the film’s bombastic and stupid but affable President Camacho (Terry Crews) and Trump come across as merely cosmetic and only serve to cartoonize the truly sinister implications of the latter’s ascent.
However, it is not mid-2010s Collider and Uproxx content-mill grist which the Reverse Shot editors asked contributors to resurrect and slide under the microscope, but rather artifacts from their own digital reserves. And this reexamination has found my own piece on Judge’s film, e-published on January 20, 2007, contemporaneous to its ignominious dumping on DVD and without press screenings, just as wanting (though in different ways) as the articles trumpeting the real-life coronation of America’s own Camacho. I was inspired to revisit this film and piece simply because, looking through my contributions to Reverse Shot from 2005 to the present, I did not see any other titles on which my feelings have changed dramatically or interestingly (Miami Vice still rocks; Mark Ruffalo’s directorial debut Sympathy for Delicious remains, I assume, bad). Idiocracy, on the other hand, kept relevant in part due to the aforementioned think pieces and adoptions of aspects of its worldview by both sensitive liberals and the “based” right, has never strayed far from my mind. I thought it’d be worth questioning the qualified endorsement I gave this seeming underdog and victim of 20th Century Fox’s release mismanagement.
In 2005, the U.S. military tries a hibernation experiment in which they send their most average, Judge-ian everyman factotum, Joe (Luke Wilson), and prostitute companion Rita (Maya Rudolph) to the year 2505, where the two wake to discover the world (only ever referred to as “America”) has become a moronic inferno. “It’s just a comedy” is a cop-out never seriously entertained in the digi-pages of Reverse Shot, whose writers know that broad-reaching laughers are often the ideal delivery capsules for social conditioning and ideology (whether conscious or not), and that picking them apart closely is a wonderful way for buzzkill critics to take a culture’s temperature at any given time. Jammed with blue humor, pimp jokes, and sight gags in addition to its sharp observations and mark-leaving digs at our shared cultural dereliction, Idiocracy is “just” a comedy, but one whose load-bearing premise is based, seemingly, maybe (?) credulously, on the racist pseudosciences of eugenics/dysgenics and IQ tests.
Using omniscient narration and pop-doc graphics, Idiocracy’s prologue frets that the world population is growing at an unmanageable pace, and that stupid people are far out-reproducing their intelligent counterparts, which means a future overstuffed with and ruled by morons. Intelligence is casually equated with income level, as a wealth-coded upper-middle-class couple (Darlene Hunt and the great Patrick Fischler), who hem and haw about climate change and the economy as reasons not to procreate, are contrasted with oft-pregnant fudge-smudged trailer trash. Just a comedy, Judge and Cohen’s film doesn’t bother or have the bandwidth to examine the causes of wealth and education inequality, finding it much simpler to blame society’s downfall on libido-driven simpletons. This sets up all of the comedy in the dumb future—fine. But the only answer to the unasked question (how to prevent or slow this) is selective breeding and forced sterilization, and that sets the film’s worldview firmly in the fully discredited and decidedly unfunny world of eugenics, the bigoted, paranoid ethos championed especially in the early 20th century by notables from H. L. Mencken to Hitler. While the widely accepted “Flynn effect” (which shows that so-called “intelligence levels” have only increased over time) and recent studies that the population rise will soon peak disprove the theory, you will still find proponents on message boards and in college dorms (where I remember rooming next to a gaggle of preppy shut-ins who pinned flyers on the outside of their doors bemoaning their pet issue of population growth).
“Are the makers of Idiocracy as bad as Hitler?” is not a question I’m asking, and anyone with the slightest appreciation of Judge knows about his intimate affection for the kind of “hicks” the movie’s prologue blames for its dystopia. He’s also famously catholic with his vitriol, mocking hippies (Beavis and Butt-Head), bosses (Office Space), workers (Extract), red-state Republicans (King of the Hill), Big Tech (Silicon Valley), and liberals (The Goode Family) throughout his career. But Idiocracy opening with a seeming endorsement of such hateful ideology sours the many genuine laughs and jabs it generates before its 84 minutes fizzle in a noisy, annoying arena rumble, and I fear it’s worth mentioning that the film’s nightmare future is quite markedly brown-skinned (except for the doctors and judges).
In my 2007 piece, I breezed past the opening with the second half of one sentence: “Joe wakes to a world gone to shit, run and populated by morons due to the present phenomenon of the uneducated and derelict breeding at rates fantastically higher than their counterparts.” I remember exactly where I was when I wrote this—on St. Marks Place between 4th and 5th Avenues in Park Slope, Brooklyn, under an IKEA loft bed in a three-bedroom apartment I shared with two Craigslist bros following a recent breakup. If it’s useful to hold my 27-year-old self accountable for glossing over the eugenics and focusing mostly on the botched release, jokes, and dismal CGI, I am happy to do so. In that guy’s defense, it makes sense that a newly single mid-twenties fellow yet to face Trump the world leader, COVID, and a raft of disappointments and setbacks might be a callower, more surface-level sort, blinder to pernicious ideologies, than the 43-year-old married man (still in Brooklyn—different neighborhood) I am today.
Aside from the major blind spot, I was pleasantly surprised (because I rarely reread my own work and was afraid to do so for this assignment) to find the piece readable and true to most of my current feelings on the film after a rewatch, even if I used “nonplussed” in the bastardized, informal way of “unperturbed” rather than the dictionary definition meaning something like the opposite. The rewatch again proved Justin Long the secret MVP as Doctor Lexus, who babbles the film’s funniest lines when he groks that Joe lacks the government-mandated barcode tattoo: “Where’s your tattoo, tattoo, why don’t you have this, why come you don’t have a tattoo…” The precise burlesque of dressed-up police language (“particular individual … we’re engaged in procuring tattoo … headed for this particular domicile”) remains dead-on and not merely goofy, as such code smuggles brute thuggery behind normalizing bureaucracy-speak. More prescience from Judge and Cohen: TVs have only grown more like those in Idiocracy, with their numerous screens-within-screens (and services like Netflix interrupting closing credits to immediately force some unbidden content onto viewers), and advertising grows increasingly omnipresent, targeted to web browsing habits and, it seems, offline conversations, even if it’s not yet as openly hostile as in the film (“If you don’t smoke Tarryltons—Fuck You!”).
In 2007, I rightly bemoaned the “smug, ubiquitous narration” that “feels gummed on”—the latter turn of phrase being one I often lift from Orwell’s 1946 masterpiece essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he writes that modern writing “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Come to think of it, Orwell’s essay shares Idiocracy’s horror at the debasement of language, though unlike the Judge film it examines the purposeful agenda behind the degeneration. Supreme self-awareness might ultimately be asking too much of a satire that mostly uses its unfortunate prologue as a sketch-comedy setup, especially in a film that may have been heavily butchered in the editing (Judge has been diplomatically mum on this). Like most viewers, my younger self glided past it to get to the yuks, but 17 years have proven its eugenics-adjacent worldview to be its most conspicuous, and damning, legacy.