“Idiocracy”

Mike Judge, who created the movie “Office Space”, came out with a movie that’s on DVD now called “Idiocracy”. The name and the cover drew my attention. It shows the classic “Ascent of Man” from ape to homo sapien, and then shows man devolved into something less. (Update 10-3-07: I should point out this movie was rated R for language.)

The first 10 minutes of the movie are priceless. If you’re at all aware of population trends in the U.S., or anywhere in the Western world, really, you’ll get the joke immediately. Being a comedy it puts things in stark, absurd terms. It begins with some background.

As the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection: the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest reproduced in greater numbers than the rest; a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man [here it shows pictures of Einstein, Beethoven, Darwin, and works by famous Renaissance artists] now began to favor different traits [here it shows images of a “skank chic” 20-something, Joey Buttafuoco, WWF wrestling, and a female boxer]. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized, and more intelligent [here it shows a mural of gleaming, sleek futuristic cities, monorails, sleek jet cars and flying personal craft]. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, a dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species.

Then it plays on stereotypes. It shows two families. The first is a cautious, white, well-to-do, highly educated couple talking at first about the financial difficulties of having children, and then years later, the fertility problems. The other is an economically and educationally disadvantaged white husband and wife with a few children who realize they’re “pregnant again”. Not only that, he’s been sleeping around, and has produced more children. The same goes for his eldest son, the football star. As I watched this I couldn’t help but chuckle. I’ve had much the same thoughts and images running through my head from time to time for a few years now, probably induced by the media images I see. I think what it really shows is being educated and thoughtful has its downside. You can tend to overthink problems and issues, which leads to indecisiveness and paralysis. I’ve certainly experienced that in my life. What it also says is trying to control your life too much leads to having no legacy to pass to anyone, whereas those who just take life as it comes, and don’t think about it that much, do, for good or for ill.

The part about science fiction predicting a more civilized, intelligent, and technologically advanced society, contrasts it with an exaggerated present reality. It really hit me. I hadn’t examined this, but I must have held this expectation somewhere in the back of my mind, and been disappointed that we haven’t come even close to this idealized goal yet. It may be another few hundred years before this vision becomes reality. I have thought from time to time that 2001: A Space Odyssey (the book) predicted we would have sent humans to Saturn by now. We haven’t even sent anyone to the Moon since the early 1970s. It’s depressing to realize that the manned missons to the Moon were little more than Cold War political stunts with advancements in electronics and planetary science being a side-effect. I hear these bold pronouncements occasionally about new human missions to the Moon, and to Mars, but somehow I doubt NASA will be sending people back anytime soon. We’ll have better luck with the private sector. Government is going to be spending the next 30 years dealing with Social Security and Medicare, not to mention the current War on Terror.

A particularly relevant scene in the movie follows the introduction, showing a military librarian, Joe Bauers (played by Luke Wilson), being taken off his job because “no one comes down here anymore”. He’s put on a new assignment: to be a test subject for a cryogenic “skilled human preservation” experiment. One thing that’s pointed out is he is totally alone. He has no parents, is not married, and has no children. He gets picked because if the experiment goes awry no one will care. That’s the reasoning, anyway.

He and another test subject, a prostitute named Rita (played by Maya Rudolph), think they’re only going to be in stasis for a year, but because of a military scandal the project is forgotten, and the two test subjects end up in stasis for 500 years. Don’t these stories always end up this way? They should be paying royalties to the people who made Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Anyway, that’s how the story starts.

Joe wakes up in a trashed out, dumbed down society that looks like it was made by the people from WWF and Jerry Springer. Rita is awakened at the same time. The movie is a farce, so take what follows here through that lens.

If you’ve ever wondered what our modern society would look like if we re-entered the Dark Ages, this would be a good example. Unfortunately the movie wastes a half-hour making fun of “all the stupid people”. It’s not funny. I was worried it was going to turn out like “Howard The Duck”, where the introduction was good, but the rest of the movie sucked. The movie picks up again with some good material eventually. It’s even interesting to look at from an anthropological perspective after the boring stuff is overwith. It’s kind of a rip-off of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but without the Morlocks. There are several references to a “time machine” in the movie. Perhaps it was an inside joke?

Joe is hired by the government (also made up of dimwits) to fix the nation’s crop problem. Nothing grows. What gradually dawns on him is that societal decisions have been heavily influenced by certain corporations. Of course government officials are so out of it they don’t realize this has happened. They’ve just taken the corporate marketing hook, line, and sinker. He realizes nothing is growing because they’re not using water to irrigate the crops. Instead they’re using a sports drink called “Brawndo”, made by a company of the same name. He tries to get them to use water, but to them water is only used in toilets. They don’t even drink it. They have a serious problem understanding why he wants to use “toilet water” to irrigate the crops. Even though the evidence is staring them in the face, they’re stuck on the idea that Brawndo is good for the crops. This made me smile. Being in the computer field, I can recognize this kind of cognitive dissonance in myself and others. You know, when the only tool you know is a hammer, everything looks like a nail? It happens in this field all the time. It’s a sign of cultural backwardness.

An aspect that keeps getting harped on is how “gay” Joe sounds. He’s just articulate. This causes the others to not take him seriously. Even while he’s trying to explain to them what they need to do, they just laugh him off. He gets so discouraged. He can’t believe he’s the smartest man on Earth, and he can’t believe everyone else is so dumb. At one point Rita asks him, “You think Einstein walked around thinking everyone was a bunch of dumbs__ts?” Interesting question.

Despite them blowing him off, he manages to get water to the crops, but then a conflict arises over a classic public interest problem: employment vs. a public health issue. Since they’re not using Brawndo for crops anymore, thousands of workers at the company get laid off. It illustrates the kind of one public/corporate interest vs. another public interest battles that I’m sure go on in government all the time.

The movie satirizes our popular culture today, but the creators may have done that just to create something that seems familiar. I think they lost a good opportunity to make a point about it like, “Hey, we’re capable of being smart, but our culture is making us dumb,” something of that sort. For the most part it was just “smart people” vs. “dumb people”, as if never the twain would meet.

The point of the story is about doing the work of maintaining civilization, and not taking it for granted. If necessary, do the work of making yourself smarter on your own. We can’t slouch on the job. I can appreciate that message, even in a comedy. I talked about this topic here.

Overall I’d give “Idiocracy” 2-1/2 stars out of 5. The acting was OK. I think the concept was good, but it was hindered by mediocre writing in some spots. Even so I got some good laughs out of it, and it conveys a message that’s rarely heard in our popular culture.

Edit 2/28/08: I watched the movie again, and thought I’d brush up this review.

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3 thoughts on ““Idiocracy”

  1. I have a background in anthropology and intelligence traits are heritable. Humanity is always in flux, the gene pool is always changing, and for every action is a reaction. If it was the case that the United States became a land of mouth breathers then it would be weakened and possibly succumb to a massive loss of life through engaging in an irrational war campaign or simply through polluting themselves or through being subject to manipulation of any sort.

    The sick cattle will be culled through eventual human warfare and competition over scarce resources. One only has to look through history to see one’s future.

  2. I remember a sci-fi short story I read in the 1970’s that had a story line that went something like this:

    …The human population becomes dumber over time because the smart people have kept their family sizes small to prevent ruining the Earth, whereas the dumb people have many kids. So billboards and other popular culture are nonsensical . The smart people go underground to try to figure out a way to save the earth. They decide to trick the dumb people into blastiing off into space in rockets that go nowhere with the promise of homes in a wonderful new world…..

    Darned if I can remember the title or author, though!

  3. Part of that seems very similar to “Hitchiker’s Guide…” when they stumble across a planet that a bunch of “useless people” (telemarketers, etc.) were tricked into crash landing on.

    J.Ja

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