Because the world is always a mess, we’ve decided to look back at some of our favorite dystopic works and examine why they remain so potent no matter how many years have passed between their creation and now.
Usually when we think of dystopias, there’s a certain level of antagonistic intelligence involved. Governments turn on their population after tragedies, cleverly eroding the liberties of their population over time rather than all at once; corporations topple entire government structures in order to turn better profits; diabolical tyrants emerge and give their people peace in the form of oppression. All of these situations involve complicated plans and massive amounts of patience on the way to their implementation. But ten years ago, Mike Judge imagined a dystopia that was perhaps a little more realistic and involved no complicated plans, just the consistently increasing laziness of our society.
Idiocracy utilizes a number of sci-fi tropes and cliches but where its influences remain somewhat optimistic in their idea that society will become dystopic at the hands of overly competent entities, Judge’s film subverts standard ideas of dystopias by making incompetence the true threat. Luke Wilson’s “Average Joe” Bauers truly lives up to his name in the film, functioning as a totally anonymous and plain person who bumbles his way into being the smartest person on the planet after he’s enlisted in a military cryogenic hibernation experiment that falls prey to incompetence. Bauers’ cryogenic stint lasts five hundred years and he wakes up in a terrifyingly stupid new world, stuck with his fellow time refugee, a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph), who adjusts a little better and quicker to the new situation.
Although Idiocracy’s junk hub visual style is right in line with a number of other dystopian and post-apocalyptic works, the reasoning behind that aesthetic is refreshing and unique. Judge depicts a nation of slovenly hoarders living in plastic shacks, vegging out to reality programming like Ow My Balls, taking occasional trips to Starbucks not for lattes but for handjobs. Everything in the film is sloppy and disgusting but there’s no nuclear annihilation or alien invasions or dictatorships to blame for that. And through it all, Judge makes it clear that Bauers, as our stand-in, comes from the era that allowed this to happen and is in part responsible.
As a “hero,” Bauers leaves a lot to be desired. But his frustrations and shock with the new state of the world are intended to mock the idea that we don’t realize what slobs we truly are until we see an extreme version of our own behavior elsewhere. There’s also satire in Bauers arc, as he fails his way to the top like so many other generic white men before him. Throughout the film, Bauers stumbles into absurd situations and has to overcome the “language barrier” of being a completely average person talking to a world of idiots, which is how he ends up “saving” society when he eventually convinces President Camacho (Terry Crews, in a breakout role) and his subjects that a Gatorade-like drink is not what “plants crave” and is, in fact, destroying all vegetation. Bauers succeeds not because of ingenuity or revolutionary thought but because he is, in fact, doing the bare minimum to get by, thus creating a loop of laziness and incompetence.
You can extend that criticism to the film itself, which deserves to be criticized for its not-so-subtle undercurrent of classism and basically explicit approval of eugenics. The film opens with a documentary-style introduction explaining that stupid poor people are outbreeding smart rich people and as a result civilization is decline. As Matt Novak noted a few years ago in a Gizmodo piece on Idiocracy, the film is “cruel and terrible,” lacking nuance and sensitivity. Novak rightfully points out that Idiocracy’s condemnation of reality tv and clickbait isn’t refreshing or new and that complaints about pop culture ruining society have existed since culture emerged. There is an underbelly of nastiness and cruelty to Idiocracy that isn’t present in other Judge works like King of the Hill and Office Space and that ultimately works against the film since so many of its targets are undeserving victims. Even though it mines similar territory as Wall-e, that film had a much more humane and equal approach, and also notably had a more optimistic ending encouraging viewers to believe that it’s never too late to try to make things better.
That said, it’s difficult to ignore how well Idiocracy matches up with the current election cycle and the disturbing synchronicity of that cycle happening ten years after the film was released. You can’t entirely remove Idiocracy’s regressive class politics and whiffs of eugenics from its narrative but when the film is more focused on the idea that we’re allowing consumer culture to, well, consume our liberties, it’s more interesting. The film may initially begin with unfortunate commentary on the poor but the bulk of the film is focused on out of control brands, from the Gatorade surrogate “Brawndo” to the new forms well-known entities like Costco and Starbucks have taken in our bleak future. At heart, Idiocracy suggests that our need for easy comforts is causing us to stop asking hard questions about how and why we’re getting goods and services so cheaply. In the future of Idiocracy, robots do most of the work to keep society somewhat stable while the bulk of the population works just enough to pay for easy things and any questions about what has enabled this are silenced with hype and bombastic entertainment.
Idiocracy could have been a sharper, more successful satire if it looked at how a need for easy comforts went beyond class lines. It’s not like Apple products and hoverboards are strictly the toys of the lower class, after all (or memes!). But it’s fitting that Idiocracy takes the easy path and is basically lazy in its satirical approach and even more fitting that it continues to click with so many people. That fear we have about what we’re doing to ourselves by striving for an easy life (which was notably also the goal of Office Space’s protagonists) is curiously underexplored in dystopic fiction and there’s a kind of poetic justic to Idiocracy’s intentional averageness and baseline competence allowing it to flourish as a result of being essentially the only mainstream work on the subject.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover