“It’s a movie now,” wrote one reviewer of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy (2006), “but in ten years it will be a historical documentary.” Wake up, time travelers. The year 2016 is here, and several days ago—as reported in Entertainment Weekly and elsewhere—Idiocracy’s co-writer Etan Cohen tweeted that he “never expected #idiocracy to become a documentary.” The end times are right on schedule.
If you don’t know Idiocracy, well, there’s a good reason for that. Judge’s dystopian satire was nearly snuffed in the cradle by its own studio, 20th Century Fox. It was never screened for critics; its release was postponed; and it received virtually zero publicity. “Why did Fox,” wondered Dan Mitchell of The New York Times, “after sitting on the movie for two years before releasing it Sept. 1, decide not to market the film, opting instead to open it quietly in only 130 theaters and then quickly send it to video? Judging by the online reaction, there are at least two possible reasons.”
Both of those reasons bolster the film’s own argument. The first is that it was a little too painfully accurate in its depiction of a future destroyed by the fecundity of the profoundly dumb. The other is that it blisteringly lampoons the marketing strategies of businesses with ties to the all-powerful News Corp. In Idiocracy’s 2505, Fuddrucker’s is memorably called ButtFuckers, Starbuck’s has become a handjob parlor, practically everything is sponsored by Carl’s Jr. (its slogan: “Fuck you! I’m eating!”), and both water fountains and center-pivot crop irrigation systems pump out a green, electrolyte-enhanced sports drink called Brawndo: The Thirst Mutilator.
Idiocracy’s satire of corporate marketing—which recalls David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996) and its corporate-branded calendar years, like the Year of the Purdue Wonder Chicken—is a kid-gloves treatment next to its take on our future fellow Americans. The film opens with an explanation of mankind’s downfall: high-IQ people postpone reproduction too long, while idiots—like a trailer park denizen named Clevon, who spreads his genetic material as widely as Genghis Khan—breed like Tribbles. Five hundred years of this have brought us a future in which trash mounts sky high, health care is administered like burgers at a fast-food chain, and intelligence has all but vanished from the species.
Idiocracy’s conceit, owing something both to Wells’s Time Machine and to Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), is that a perfectly average serviceman, kept in suspended animation for a military experiment, is misplaced until a garbage avalanche awakens him from his hibernation pod. Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is joined in the future by his co-guinea pig, Rita (Maya Rudolph), a hooker “managed” in 2005 by a pimp named Upgrayedd (Brad Jordan). Joe and Rita are not remarkable people; in the future, they’re the smartest people alive. It isn’t long before they attract the government’s attention and are dragooned into solving all of America’s problems.
The country, by the way, is run by a former professional wrestler and porn star, President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews), and this is where the film starts to be uncomfortably prophetic. American is on the verge—maybe brink is the right word—of nominating a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who has made a number of “Monday Night Raw” and “WrestleMania” appearances. Is it fair to wonder whether Mike Judge is a time traveler?
Idiocracy lampoons nearly every aspect of American life. Joe is treated in a hospital by a stoned Dr. Lexus (Justin Long), who diagnoses him thus: “You talk like a fag and your shit’s all retarded.” He is dragged into an ad-plastered courtroom—in an orange jumpsuit and a cage, like a condemned ISIS captive—only to be betrayed by the incompetence of his lawyer, Frito (Dax Shepard), who later becomes his bovine sidekick. He is mistreated by policemen and correctional officers whose uniforms appear to have been supplied by Ed Hardy and who monotone in cop talk: “Now we will begin to proceed to obtain your IQ and aptitude test.” In one scene, the militarized police force (sounding familiar?) accidentally shoots a plane out of the sky while riddling an empty car with bullets.
Where Idiocracy laughs at our culture, though, it dares to ask: Are we stupid because business and marketing made us that way? Or did business and marketing take advantage of a trend that was set in motion by other circumstances? When we stroll with the film’s heroes through a Costco the size of an Imperial Star Destroyer, its interior like the cargo deck of a modern container ship, we are forced to wonder whether our own hunger for cheap and abundant crap—“goods” is a misnomer—made this abomination possible.
In the person of President Camacho we find a pointed criticism not only of personality cult but also, per an offhand remark, the kind of nepotism that thrives in corrupt societies. The sloth-like Secretary of Education is, we discover, “kind of stupid, but he’s President Camacho’s stepbrother.” This is Idiocracy’s lone stab at addressing the American education system, which is puzzling given the film’s preoccupation with intelligence. It’s almost as if Judge doubts the efficacy of education in narrowing the gap between the cognitive haves and have-nots.
If so, that was and remains the most controversial thing about Idiocracy. It does nothing to advance the argument that externalities make us dumb—that FoxNews and MSNBC retard our political thought; that, say, Maxim and Cosmopolitan narrow our gender identities and consumer habits; that lousy and underfunded schools leave us ill-equipped to lead ourselves confidently into the future. Like the finest satire, it blames us. More harshly and fatalistically than all but the harshest satire, it blames our refusal to take eugenics seriously. Doesn’t it? Isn’t this why, despite its pungent humor, it was too disturbing to be much of a success?
Not so fast. Like Wells’s The Time Machine, Idiocracy posits that the human race will suffer a great and tragic bifurcation into, to use Wells’s evocative terms, Morlocks and Eloi. Here is how Wells’s Time Traveler saw that come to pass:
I grieved to think how brief the dream of the human intellect had been. It had committed suicide. It had set itself steadfastly towards comfort and ease, a balanced society with security and permanency as its watchword, it had attained its hopes—to come to this at last. Once, life and property must have reached almost absolute safety… .
It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.
Idiocracy shows, too, how a materially satisfied society tends toward intellectual lassitude. But it offers a solution to this tendency. The film is obsessed with language. The perfectly average Joe Bauers is scorned, even in court, for his articulate speech, while his lawyer spews malopropisms: “I supersize [sympathize] with you.” Misspellings abound, like ENTRINS above a door or TIME MASHEEN on the amusement park ride that ultimately confounds Joe’s hope of returning to the past. “[T]he English language,” the narrator informs us upon Joe’s arrival in the future, “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.”
Language—self-expression, discourse, literature—is mankind’s best tool for exercising its intellectual muscle in the absence of existential threats to its survival. As Jacques Barzun wrote, “Intellect watches particularly over language because language is so far the only device for keeping ideas clear and emotions memorable.” When he becomes President of America, Joe doesn’t take a hundred slower-witted women as his mates. Instead, he delivers this rousing speech: “There was a time in this country when smart people were considered cool—well, maybe not cool, but smart people did things like build ships and pyramids and they even went to the moon. And there was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags, and neither was writing. People wrote books, and movies—movies that had stories, so you cared whose ass it was, and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again.”
Toward the end of The Time Machine, Wells’s Time Traveler finds a gallery filled with “the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough.” That tale is the same one that Joe Bauers tells, about a time when human beings, having done a decent job of shoring up their physical welfare, used language and storytelling to create new challenges, new opportunities for self-examination, and new solutions. That time hasn’t quite come to an end, but recent developments make it clear that if we don’t want our brains to devolve into Nutraloaf, we’d better start using them in earnest.