'Idiocracy' Realized: How Our Current Situation Is Worse Than the Film Predicted
The 2006 cult comedy Idiocracy is having its moment in the sun. Written and directed by Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis & Butthead,” Idiocracy envisions a future corporate American wasteland where Costco is as large as a small city, the food pyramid consists entirely of fast food, and the president of the United States (Terry Crews) is a five-time "Ultimate Smackdown" professional wrestling champion and ex-porn star. “So you’re smart, huh?” President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho says to hapless time traveler Joe “Not Sure” Bauers (Luke Wilson), an Average Joe chagrined to discover he’s now the smartest man in the country. “I thought your head would be bigger,” Camacho bellows. “Looks like a peanut!”
Donald Trump's political ascendancy has made Idiocracy seem like prophecy. (Or, per a viral tweet by the film’s screenwriter, a “documentary.”) As satire, however, Idiocracy is uneven, precisely because recent events have already exceeded its most trenchant bits of lunacy. In the fictional Idiocracy future, Congress is full of idiots who do nothing but yell, “You’re a dick!” at the president. But those antics pale in comparison to stunts pulled by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer and reality TV show star whose foreign policy proposals include telling China, Listen, you motherfuckers, we’re going to tax you 25 percent! In 2009, Trump purchased the rights to pro-wrestling show “Monday Night Raw” and then sold them back to the previous owner “for twice the price,” according to the World Wrestling Entertainment website. “Since then, the WWE Hall of Famer [has] focused on his ever-expanding real estate empire, his Emmy-nominated reality television show ‘The Apprentice’ and running for president of the United States.”
Mike Judge may be a funny guy, but his mind isn’t exactly subtle. A decade ago when Idiocracy was released, he was already treading well-worn ground by envisioning a future where being unable to pay debts is a crime (see: the return of debtor’s prison), the Violence Channel dominates the networks (see: all of cable), and a plotless film about a farting white ass wins Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards (see: Swiss Army Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse).
To be sure, there is more than a grain of truth in Judge’s worry that educated people sound like “fags” to a population that speaks “a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang, and various grunts.” But in order to get the laughs, he went for low-hanging fruit, using eugenics as a plot device, romanticizing the effects of social engineering and coming perilously close to validating the dubious notion of IQ as a social sorting tool.
The film opens with a voiceover explaining that rampant breeding among the dimwitted has undone civilization. After 500 years of exponential idiocy, corporate America has responded by catering to the lowest common denominator. Thus, future Starbucks offers hand jobs. Fuddruckers has become Buttfuckers. Fox News is anchored by pro-wrestlers. Costco gives out law degrees. And the company behind the energy drink Brawndo owns the FDA, FCC and USDA. But the film got the power dynamic backward, thereby softballing its critique. As Adam Johnson pointed out on AlterNet, it decided to highlight “the problem—in this case political ignorance—without addressing its primary culprit: the consolidation of media into large corporations, a PR-fueled think tank industry fed by billionaires designed to promote toxic right-wing canards… and a decades-long corporate assault on K-12 and postsecondary education.”
The “villain” isn’t the fertile loins of the underclasses. It’s us for rushing to judge them, instead of doing the hard work of confronting class bias and challenging economic inequality. It’s consumer culture for measuring human value in dollars and promoting the worship of the rich. But Idiocracy still paid the price for linking garbage values to corporate America. It was squelched on release, only gaining a cult following after it was released on DVD.
Compare its fate to a different comedy featuring everyman idiots likewise released in 2006: Talledaga Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. A box-office smash about race-car drivers, Talledaga Nights not only built commercials into the film’s narrative, but celebrated corporate branding so lovingly that the entire movie might well be understood as a clever ad for Wonder Bread and Applebee’s. Starring comedian Will Ferrell, the film enjoyed the usual marketing blitz followed by an initial run in 3,803 theaters, grossing $47 million in its opening week. By contrast, Idiocracy ran in only seven theaters (later expanded to 130, possibly due to a contractual obligation) without any publicity whatsoever. Then it was quietly shuttered, as if the studio feared that word of mouth might inadvertently fill seats.
20th Century Fox’s exceptionally poor treatment of its own property did not go unnoticed. In 2006, one critic suggested the film had the potential to be politically revolutionary because its larger message was that mindless consumerism is killing humanity:
What if voters decided intelligence and nuanced thinking were more important qualities in a presidential candidate than with whom they’d most like to have a beer? What if the Uhmerican public decided they wanted decent, affordable health care, and started doing things like reading books and cultivating gardens instead of turning on the TV, gorging on fast food, or going shopping for clothes covered with corporate logos?
The LA Times asked, “Did Judge’s film, by sheer happenstance, mirror Rupert Murdoch’s blueprint for a Fox-fed nation of fat, dumb and happy? Is the problem a threatened lawsuit over the way ‘Idiocracy’ treats corporate America?”
If Judge was worried about a potentially litigious line, he avoided crossing it with the film’s sole fabricated corporate behemoth: Brawndo, creator of the eponymous sports drink, aka the "Thirst Mutilator." In the future, only the toilet water is regular H20. Otherwise—even for agricultural irrigation—water has been completely replaced by Brawndo, which is laden with sugar, salts and food coloring. As a result, nothing grows except for profits. Someone is getting rich. But who are Brawndo’s corporate overlords and where are they putting their ill-gotten gains? Nobody knows. It’s never mentioned in the film.
In real life, the avatars of companies like Brawndo are replacing water as the default drink of the masses. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that health initiatives linking soda consumption to diabetes and obesity have had a negative impact on the global pace of soda sales. The country of Mexico responded by imposing a 10 percent soda tax, hoping thus to discourage the poor from purchasing sugary drinks. Sales briefly slowed. But, the Wall Street Journal crowed, sales were once again climbing: “a bright spot for an industry that has feared it could be cast as the next tobacco.”
Oblivious to the bleak implication of those words, the article’s next sentence ventured into self-parody. Those soda-drinkers sending Coke and PepsiCo’s profits soaring? They’re responsible for the “alarming obesity and diabetes rates in a country where per capita soda consumption is the highest in the world.”
Why won’t the diabetic, obese poor of Mexico drink healthful water, which Coke and PepsiCo also sells in such quantities that “global volumes were up 5.7 percent last year”? Among other things, it’s because plain bottled water is more expensive than soda in a country where tap water frequently comes in a variety of colors (yellow, red, brown), and flavors (metallic, sulfuric, chlorinated). And that’s in the city. Rural areas often have no water delivery systems at all. But this is great news for capitalists, who have no interest in developing municipal water utilities but are thrilled to sell water to poor and politically disenfranchised communities. Because humans need water to survive. It's a guaranteed captive market.
“The lack of free, publicly supplied quality drinking water generates great business opportunities,” writes Kurt Hollander. “As a result, Mexico ranks second in the world in per capita consumption of bottled water, now the single most profitable product ever sold.” In place of Brawndo’s electrolytes, some bottled water being sold in Mexico is getting “electrolysis.” This means that soda typically remains safer to drink than bottled water from dubious sources that may or may not have been purified. Sugar also provides a calorie boost, a psychological boon to the chronically deprived.
And so we make fun of the poor for being unlovely, overweight, unhealthy, and too stupid to realize that soda is killing them, even as the tap water crisis either registers as a profitable market to be exploited or an opportunity to feel culturally and morally superior to the great unwashed of the world. Currently, 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water. That number is on the rise. If Mexico City can’t provide water to its residents, why don’t those soda-swillers just move someplace where there’s more water? Well, some of them are trying. Trump calls them “criminals” and “rapists.”
Because Idiocracy follows the pattern of a tinker’s son fairy tale where persistence, honesty and fortitude ultimately puts a worthy peasant on the throne, Joe “Not Sure” Bauers succeeds in getting plants to grow by using plain water, saving everyone’s life plus his own. The movie happily ends with a wedding. In the real world, however, the Thirst Mutilator's profitability model is not so easily waved away, and negotiating geopolitical solutions to socioeconomic problems requires better-than-average brains. But the film has been raising awareness and creating space for a populist debate. In response to the sudden topicality of his film, Mike Judge is considering a 10th anniversary tour with the lead actors, and a hosting a Q&A. Idiocracy's President Camacho’s priceless response to the current political hubbub that’s shined a spotlight on the film? “All y'all need to stop trippin. Chill the F Out, ‘merica.”