🧠 I Am So Smart, S-M-R-T...
Idiocracy is a 2006 film by Mike Judge, the first movie he'd directed since 1999's cult classic Office Space. It tells the story of Joe, a perfectly average, er... man... chosen to participate in a human hibernation experiment that went wrong, leaving him stranded 500 years in the future. In this horrific future, intelligence has been bred out of humanity and the world is on the brink of collapse, and now Joe is the smartest person on the planet. Can he evade capture? (spoiler: no) Can he help heal the world? (spoiler: kinda) Hijinks ensue!
Idiocracy has become something of a cultural touchstone, frequently name-checked as a scathing satire of the dumbing down of society, a film that shines the light on our cultural milieu and just eviscerates it. And it's an accolade that I don't think is completely justified. This is a thought that's been niggling at the back of my brain for a while now. You see, over the years I've heard people from all over the political spectrum use this movie as a punchline as they make fun of... whoever they don't like. And this bugs me, because that's not the way satire usually works. A good satire is often quite specific about what it's targeting--that's what makes it satire.
Now, people frequently misunderstand cultural criticism. It happens all the time. Fight Club straight up tells you that your idealized cult-of-personality best self is a dangerous figment of your imagination, but has inspired would-be anarcho-fascists the world over. The Matrix is a parable about gender dysphoria disguised as a high-concept sci-fi actioner, and yet the term "Red Pill" has been co-opted by reactionary conspiracy theorists. Half the people who watched Starship Troopers the movie didn't get that it was lampooning Starship Troopers the book. Hell, the entire comic book industry seemed to miss the point of Watchmen. And that's fine. Not every joke lands. But it's not like there's some deep thematic resonance to Idiocracy that people failed to grok. At least, it didn't play that way in my memory. Of course, I hadn't seen it since it was in the theaters, so I re-watched it to figure out if I'd been missing anything.
And, no, I hadn't. It was pretty much exactly what I remembered.
So here's the thing. And--full disclosure--this is a trick question. What, precisely, is the theme of Idiocracy? What's it about? What is it satirizing? What is it saying about our culture? Because as far as I can tell, it's not saying anything. Because it's not actually a satire. It's a one-joke premise that keeps making the same joke over and over. All it has to say about anything is "aren't stupid people hilarious and wouldn't it be bad if they were in charge?" and then it just punches down for ninety minutes. But with regards to what actually is being dumbed down or how, or what we should do about it? The movie is shockingly non-committal.
In a way it's kind of brilliant. Mike Judge is famously tight-lipped about his political preferences but a movie about a government run by idiots is inherently political. And if you pay attention, the film goes to great lengths to both have its cake and eat it, to lay the blame at the feet of both the left and the right. The "idiots" of Idiocracy are simultaneously coded as white hillbillies and urban minorities. The down-breeding of the world was caused by both rednecks having wild un-protected sex and by intellectuals and elites being unable to get their shit together. The "smart" family in the opening who never get around to having children are not portrayed flatteringly, and then scientists are blamed for never fixing things with genetic engineering because they were too busy working on hair re-growth and boner pills. Society is a wreck because of corporate interference and mismanaged government, and the result is a world in which basic services like trash removal don't exist, but it's also somehow a nanny state that coddles everyone. In short, whoever you think is the villain that's ruining society--you're right.
From a basic storytelling standpoint, none of this makes sense. You can't have a world where everything is automated when no one is smart enough to automate things. You can head-canon around that a little bit--maybe they're surviving on the remains of a world where people were once smart enough to automate everything. But it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. The automation is specifically geared towards making the world livable for stupid people. Or, look at it another way: the finale of the movie involves someone driving a monster truck the size of a four story building into an arena and knocking down walls because the truck was too big to fit through the door. But making such a vehicle is still an impressive feat of engineering. Someone smart must be around to make it, which undercuts the whole premise.
Why does this matter? I'm not normally one to spend a lot of time poking my fingers into plot holes. And really it only matters because this movie is held up as some kind of oracular vision, that has something sharp and cutting to say. And if that were true, it would be reflected in the world, as the world of the story is a reflection of the themes of the story. To take an instructive example with a similar premise, consider H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. (Ignore the 2002 Guy Pierce adaptation, as it completely missed the themes.) In that book, you have a future with a society of dumb, child-like humans called the Eloi who are being coddled by a divergent evolution of humans called the Morlocks who live underground and prey upon them. In this case, you have a very clear cultural criticism and it's reflected in the world-building. The Time Machine is a parable about classism, about an elite upper class who have so separated themselves from the proletariat that the two have literally become different species and now the literal underclass is literally eating the rich. Themes are externalized into the text.
But Idiocracy's themes and world are incoherent because it has nothing to say. And you know what? That's fine too. It's okay to just be entertained by a silly comedy--not every song has to be Stairway to Heaven. Judge's previous effort, Office Space, didn't have anything profound to say either; it was just a mood piece about corporate life in the 90s whose barely-there story was dragged across the finish line by a compelling rom-com B-plot. It's still an enjoyable movie. Idiocracy devotes all of its world-building to setting up its one joke and then hitting it again and again and again. If you find that joke funny enough to laugh at it for 90 minutes, then have a ball. But let's not pretend like it's something it's not.
That's what I think anyway,