Sunday, August 05, 2007

Idiocracy (2006)

Eugenics, the concept of worrying about whether the best-quality people are reproducing enough and passing on their superior genes, has a bad reputation from its association with the Nazis. People say that the evil of the Nazis was just the logical conclusion of Eugenics, which makes it an evil science. I have always thought that was overstating it a bit, but the damage is done. In polite society, saying, “Stupid people shouldn’t breed,” gets you branded as either racist or elitist, and probably plotting genocide.

If anyone could bring Eugenics back, it would be Mike Judge, creator of those two candidates for forced sterilization, Beavis and Butthead. He takes his shot with “Idiocracy,” a cautionary tale about the long-term outcome of a society whose every institution encourages and even celebrates stupidity. Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is an extremely average guy picked for a military experiment in which he will go into suspended animation for a year. Alongside a female subject, a hooker named Rita (Maya Rudolph), he is sealed into a sleep capsule. As movie experiments always do, this one goes awry, and the capsules are lost for about 500 years. When Joe and Rita finally emerge, they find an America hideously dumbed down by hundreds of years of bad breeding egged on by a popular culture dominated by shows like “Jackass” and Fox News, not to mention lots and lots of commercials. As Joe picks his way through this depraved new world, he is forced to take an aptitude test which shows that he is now the smartest person on Earth. By a lot. You can probably guess the rest of the story from there.

“Idiocracy” is not distinguished by great writing, spectacular camera work, or even good acting (although Luke Wilson’s sleep-acting style actually fits this character). What makes this movie great is its sheer audacity in attacking some very powerful institutions. You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to figure that the reason this movie got pulled from wide release was that it simply pissed off too many people. Plenty of other movies have cast a critical eye on big box stores and violent entertainment, but Mike Judge takes a more comprehensive (and humorous) look at the underlying patterns involved. “Idiocracy” comments fearlessly on the constant push for us to consume (Costco’s of the future cover square miles), the increasingly blatant sexuality of marketing (chicken wings with “full release”), and the mad rush to sell out that has put a corporate name in front of every single event (In the future, even Presidential Cabinet members sport corporate sponsorships.) Judge’s story line also fires a shot across the bow of the soft drink industry. His assessment of the news media’s role in dumbing down the country is no kinder, and was probably easier. His “busy” news broadcast, with split screens and scrolling text, is only slightly busier than MSNBC, and he hardly had to tweak Fox News at all to make it the premiere news network of Dumb America. Likewise, the portrayal of the future president as a showy professional wrestler isn’t that far from reality.

Mike Judge could probably have gotten away with riffing on big corporations, the media, and dumb politicians if he had put some kind of liberal, politically correct slant on his film. Alas, any commentary to the effect that not everyone should be encouraged to reproduce is the ultimate in political incorrectness. “Idiocracy” hits close to home, and it has something to piss off everybody (That includes you, sport.) That brings us to the real story of this film, which is that it was essentially suppressed. After some initial buzz about an upcoming Mike Judge movie, all official talk of this film ceased. It was hardly advertised at all, and it only showed in a few big cities. Some will argue that this was because the movie wasn’t as good as it could have been, but given the crap that Hollywood regularly tries to shove down our throats, that argument doesn’t hold water. It’s obvious to me that the subversive, anti-corporate messages in this film are not what Big Media wants us to hear and see.

As pure entertainment, “Idiocracy” manages to sustain at least a mild level of amusement throughout, but the humor pretty much peaks in the first 20 minutes. At any given point in the film, I was more likely to be saying, “That’s so true!” rather than, “That’s hilarious!” That’s a shame, because Mike Judge has done much, much better. It seems like the creator of “Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill,” and especially “Office Space” could have done more with this subject. Oscar-level acting isn’t really needed in a broad comedy like this, but “Idiocracy” might have been more fun with a more engaging female lead and some funnier supporting actors. Overall, this movie felt like a great idea that wasn’t sure where it was going. It makes me wonder if this is really the movie Mike Judge meant to make. Whatever the case, this is a mostly fun movie that makes some great points. Watch it just to piss off the corporations!

3 stars out of 5.

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