In the mid-2000s Mike Judge could be forgiven for wondering what he had to do in order to get a film released properly. Fox dumped his excellent workplace satire Office Space in the late 1990s, but it became a huge hit on DVD, and was one of the studio’s biggest sellers in 1999. When he made the follow-up, the sardonic sci-fi comedy Idiocracy, the studio decided to ignore the previous success and released it in just 130 cinemas in the US, without any promotion or screenings for critics. Fox didn’t even bother with a trailer or print ads, either, and the film went straight to DVD in other territories.
Perhaps their reaction to Idiocracy can be understood in relation to the film’s content. In the present the distinctly average army clerk Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is frozen by the military. The experiment is forgotten about and he wakes up accidentally 500 years later, in 2505, to find that the intelligent and educated have been massively out-bred by stupid people. IQ levels have plummeted, TV appeals to the lowest common denominator (the top-rated show is The Violence Channel’s ‘Ow! My Balls!’ while the Masturbation Channel proudly proclaims it has been ‘Keepin’ America ‘batin’ for 300 years!’) and corporations have devolved at a similar pace: Carl’s Jr has changed its slogan to ‘Fuck you! I’m eating’, Starbucks offers handjobs as well as coffee and a Gatorade-style drink called Brawndo – ‘The Thirst Mutilator’ – has even replaced water. ‘It’s got electrolytes!’ proclaim happy consumers who have long lost the desire and ability to question what that actually means.
Naturally Bauers is shocked by what he finds. Thanks to dysgenics doctors in the future talk like Bill and Ted and are unable to offer any valuable medical advice while others communicate with a mix of grunts and hip hop slang. The President (Terry Crews) is an ex-wrestler and porn star who rides around on a giant customized Harley Davidson and wins debates in the ‘House Of Representin’’ by firing a machine gun in the air to silence critics. And in this world of digital clocktowers, Costco wholesale outlets that appear to be the size of small cities, and falling buildings tied together for support, the distinctly average Bauers is actually the smartest person on the entire planet (although it initially causes him a lot of trouble – people do not take kindly to the fact that he ‘talks like a fag’). Before long he is tasked with solving the USA’s most serious problems, from failing crops to nuclear meltdowns.
It’s a shame, although completely unsurprising, that Fox got cold feet as a result of Judge’s acerbic anti-corporate, anti-consumerist message; most of the organisations targeted in Idiocracy, if not all of them, buy lots of advertising time or space from the many subsidiaries and divisions of News Corp in real life and pissing them off in such a way could have proven costly. By distancing themselves from the film, though not quite burying it, Fox could stay in bed with the likes of Starbucks and Costco while still recouping some of the money they spent on the movie and fulfilling a contractual obligation to release it in cinemas, albeit two years after it was completed.
It has been suggested that the studio stiffed Judge repeatedly in terms of funding and, as a result, the director had to call in favours for some of the special effects shots in order to finish his film on time; Robert Rodriguez is one notable name who answered the call-to-arms. In a wry and witty act of revenge the TV news channel that is still most prevalent in Judge’s dystopian, ultra-dumbed down future is Fox News – a move that will have presumably angered the studio further, despite Fox’s history of allowing fun to be poked at its expense in The Simpsons.
When Judge really lets loose his satirical attack on modern day America, made through a cheaply-rendered futuristic vision, is absolutely spot on: we are currently living in a world where corporations are attempting to take over as many walks of life as they can, both private and public, and the exaggeration of this aggressive mode of operating highlights just how far these companies are currently going today. We laugh along knowingly because deep down we all know that Starbucks – or any of the other corporations that come in for a pummelling here – probably would offer handjobs to increase its profits if it could legally do so.
Our reliance on over-complicating automated systems also comes under fire, with a confused Bauers renamed ‘Not Sure’ at one point when a machine tasked with establishing his identity takes his answer to the question ‘what is your name?’ literally. And throughout the movie Judge’s favourite target, stupidity, gets both barrels. He delights when lampooning mob rule and general incompetence, and in one fantastic scene the newly-incarcerated Bauers convinces a dumb prison guard that he should in fact be released as he mistakenly joined the queue for new inmates.
It’s often very funny, but unfortunately the film runs out of puff, as most of the laughs come when we are first introduced to this dumb future and the initial potency of the gags gradually diminishes. After a while the overall dimness of our planet in 2505 begins to grate, while the presence of just a handful of mega-corporations doesn’t logically make much sense; even though it is less than ten years old the targets chosen by Judge are dating the film rapidly and there’s a distinct feeling that Judge’s true savagery has been tempered. The final act hinges on Bauers being able to save the country’s crops from failing, which leads to a tedious finale in which our hero must survive a monster truck arena battle against a Chuck Norris-esque character called Beef Supreme (Andrew Wilson) while an unconvincing love story with Maya Rudolph’s fellow defrostee Rita plays out.
It’s a shame that Rudolph’s character – the only female role of any note in the film – is a prostitute. Rather than betraying a hidden sexist agenda the job choice is merely a device to enable Judge to make some fairly weak jokes about pimps and pimping, but it isn’t really necessary and those gags don’t help the film at all. Judge has a predilection for including female characters that are little more than (stereo)typical male fantasies (see also Office Space and the patchy Extract), which is unfortunate when considering his apparent sharpness as a writer.
Still, Rudolph and the rest of the cast are committed and energetic, and they just about carry the movie over the finish line. The ever-likeable Wilson gets the tone just right – his frustrated character Joe constantly surprised at the stupidity of the world during an hour of scathing satire before gamely settling down for an odd life in the future at the end. The main problem is this final third drags, and generally the jokes fail to hit the heights of the early part of the film, but Idiocracy is still worth watching for its angrier, caustic moments and it’s remarkable enough that Judge sustains vitriol for an hour. The cheaply-rendered sets and effects give it a retro-cheesy Total Recall-style charm, too, and although it hasn’t quite attracted the same cult following as Office Space it does have a number of devoted fans … despite the best efforts of 20th Century Fox.
Directed by: Mike Judge
Written by: Mike Judge, Etan Cohen
Starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepherd, Terry Crews
Running Time: 83 minutes