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Mike Judge's futuristic satire Idiocracy has been more widely renowned for the stillborn nature of its release than for the content of the film itself. Even with the apparently bankable credentials of the man who created Beavis and Butt-Head, King of the Hill and the cult favorite Office Space, along with modestly popular star Luke Wilson, the brain trust at 20th Century Fox could not come up with a way to market this non-traditional comedy. Following a perfunctory release in about four theaters nationwide, Fox dumped Idiocracy quickly and scornfully onto DVD.
The film has drawn mixed reactions among those few human beings who've managed to view it. The general consensus is that Mike Judge made a daring and admirable attempt at a comedy masterpiece that falls short of its visionary ambitions, whether through Fox's interference or Judge's own shortcomings. Critics argue that the premise of a future world entirely populated by imbeciles wears thin, and it's too similar to Futurama, Woody Allen's Sleeper and some obscure old science-fiction story called "The Marching Morons." People also complain that Idiocracy's low budget is too readily apparent in the look of the film and its cheapish special effects.
Myself, I believe that however flawed it may be, Idiocracy is destined to be a classic. With a few tweaks to the plot and some further development of themes only hinted at in the story, this would have been a brutal indictment of modern society to rival Brazil and THX 1138. As it is, it's a fun and gutsy comedy with flashes of brilliance throughout. The genius of Idiocracy is the very element that made Fox drop it like a hot potato. While Mike Judge has built his success upon making fun of stupidity, his targets have always been "other people": dumb teenagers, dumb corporate bosses, dumb conservative middle-class Texans. This time, he has leveled his satirical crosshairs upon dumb humanity.
Judge had the balls to dream up the ultimate progression of the idiocy that not only exists in our society but thrives, thanks to our own encouragement. Dumb is what we want, and dumber is what we'll get. And this no doubt scared the hell out of Fox. Instead of playing nice and delivering a safe and sound yuk-fest along the lines of Talladega Nights or Deuce Bigalow, Judge threatened to roll a hand grenade right inside the moneymaking-brainwashing machine. Try as they might, Fox could not successfully cut together a two-minute trailer for this very funny film that made it seem anything but depressing and repellent. It can't be done. How can you market a film that's all about how viciously horrible and destructive marketing is?
As I said, Idiocracy is far from perfect. Some of the story falls flat and the plot meanders. I don't want to spoil everything for those who haven't seen it (which is, after all, about 99.9999% of the planet), but the central conceit is that an average dumb guy from today ranks as the supreme intellect of the dumbed-down future. But our hero Joe Bowers only ends up tackling one of the future's many social problems, which is the failing agriculture industry. I wanted to see him offer common-sense solutions for some of the other disasters that had turned the world into shit, such as the economy (or "ecomony"), crime, education, rampant commercialism, and so forth. I'm not saying I wanted Joe to fix everything, but it could have created a lot of funny situations to see how he would try. Furthermore, a story like this really does not work with a happy ending. We needed to see Joe get crushed and eliminated by the confederacy of dunces surrounding him, instead of winning them over to the relative wisdom of his antiquated ways.
But Idiocracy is noteworthy not for its story or characters, but for its many little scenes that concisely encapsulate modern stupidity taken to the nth degree. Mike Judge is more a master of the cutting remark and the memorable vignette than he is a storyteller. It's just the same with Office Space, which frankly has a weak plotline about a guy in a shitty job who schemes to embezzle fractions of pennies, but the movie is packed full of great scenes and quotes that everyone remembers: "flair" at Chotchkie's, taking a baseball bat to the accursed office printer, TPS reports, ass clowns. Idiocracy matches its predecessor blow-for-blow in its unforgettable nuggets of satirical gold, and I would dare suggest the second Judge feature is even superior in this respect.
I can understand people not responding as favorably as I did to the eccentric and over-the-top brand of humor that Idiocracy pursues. What I find more puzzling is the criticism of the visual design of the film. To me, the sights of Idiocracy are among its greatest triumphs. I don't see why people think the effects look cheap and unfinished, considering the nature of the movie. This is not an action film where the effects are meant to be realistic and dramatic -- it's a comedy, and it uses CGI and set design for the purpose of being funny. Mission accomplished. The production designers on Idiocracy deserve special commendation for producing such tremendously creative visuals on a small budget. Reportedly, when Fox refused to pay for all the effects work Judge wanted, the director got his friend Robert Rodriguez to contribute a bunch of the CGI work for free, so kudos to Troublemaker Studios as well. Idiocracy is brimming with visual tableaux that can stand alone without motion or sound needed to make them funny and meaningful. These types of comedy scenes have become known as "freeze-frame" moments, where the pause button on a remote control is essential to digest all the detail. This is one respect in which the DVD of Idiocracy has the upper hand over its abortive theatrical run.
And this is why I've chosen my favorite stills from Idiocracy and run them throughout this essay. These are scenes that stick in my head and resonate with me, and I feel like the visual brilliance of this film has enjoyed basically no recognition in the limited discussion that the controversy surrounding the film has generated. You can roll your cursor over each scene to read my comments. These are images that 20th Century Fox didn't want you to see, and I want everyone to have a look. Then go buy or rent the movie. Even if you don't think Idiocracy is very good, ask yourself how you feel about movie studios deciding that the themes and topics like those it raises are not suitable for exposure to theatrical audiences. Think about the next brave and risk-taking movie project that comes along but won't get so far along as a direct-to-DVD release, and will never even get made. Let's all do our part to stop Idiocracy from becoming an accurate portrait of tomorrow.
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