The whole Snakes on a Plane fiasco proved something that should have been obvious long ago (at least as long ago as Shock Treatment, the awful sequel to Rocky Horror Picture Show) – you can’t create a cult film. The marketing campaign can’t tout your movie as a cult film. A cult movie has to happen organically.
Here’s a recipe for a cult film: take a director who previously directed a genuine cult movie and have him make a film that you first sit on for a while and then dump unceremoniously into a half dozen theaters. Drop the film onto DVD a couple of months later with no fanfare. Make sure that the film is actually very good but perhaps flawed – maybe even technically unfinished. Stir thoroughly and let simmer.
Idiocracy is that movie. I never had a chance to see it in theaters, as Fox’s bizarre and perfunctory release plan didn’t include New York City. I heard good things about the movie from the few people who did see it. It snuck out onto DVD a couple of weeks back, quite below my radar. I probably would never have gotten around to seeing it, but I got enthusiastic recommendations from a couple of people who are professionally funny, and when people who make their living on comedy tell you to check something out, you listen.
I’m glad I did. Mike Judge’s movie isn’t just hilarious, it’s often quite close to brilliant. In Office Space, Judge was taking aim at workplace culture with satire that, while not genial, was not so edgy as to alienate people. Idiocracy is the opposite – it’s an angry film, a bitter movie with teeth that is calling out the vast stupid middle of America – people who shop at big box stores because it’s easy and people who eat at chain restaurants that are supposedly better than fast food and people who flock to big, dumb movies every single weekend. Idiocracy took aim at 95% of America, and it hit them square between the eyes.
The premise is very Futurama – ordinary guy Luke Wilson gets frozen in a military experiment and wakes up in the far future. But Judge’s future is quite different from Matt Groening’s – he extrapolates a terrifying and totally believable evolutionary curve where the smartest people have fewer and fewer children while the dummies who tune into Bill O’Reilly and Oprah Winfrey spit out young’un after young’un. HG Wells had a future where the evolved Eloi lived aboveground and the lower class Morlocks lived below; Judge doesn’t believe in Eloi. In this future a guy who is of completely average intelligence in 2005 is the smartest man in the world. He’s at least smart enough to know that you have to use water on crops and not sports drinks. He’s the new Einstein in a world where people think you’re a fag if you use proper English, where the president is a professional wrestler, where one of the biggest shows on TV is a guy getting hit in the balls, where your lawyer may have gone to law school at Costco, and where the Secretary of State ends every sentence with "brought to you by Carl’s Jr," because he gets a product placement fee. Frighteningly, none of this feels like it’s hundreds of years away.
There’s a comedy aristocracy today, and Judge’s film is mostly devoid of those people. Which is great – I would much rather have Justin Long show up and be genuinely hilarious as a desperately dense doctor than have Jack Black show up playing Jack Black as a doctor. Instead of going for the big names, Judge fills Idiocracy with the kind of comedic forces who are appreciated by those in the know – Dax Shepard, who finally gets a role that proves I was right about how damn funny he is; Terry Crews, continuing to be one of the least appreciated funniest people alive; David Herman, maybe the only funny person to come out of MadTV (as well as being a highlight of Office Space). And Judge even gets a terrific performance out of the usually bland Wilson – probably in part because he’s playing a completely, boringly, statistically proven normal guy.
The jokes about American stupidity in Idiocracy are not couched in metaphors or softened with fake products. Judge name-checks corporation after corporation, indicting them in the coarsening and dumbing down of our culture and society. This isn’t subtle stuff, but that’s because Judge is too mad, and the situation too dire, to pull punches. And it’s all exhilarating as well as hilarious to imagine Costco or Carl’s Jr or especially Fuddruckers (whose name over the centuries morphs into Buttfuckers) giving the OK to use their logos in the film and then seeing the final product.
I also like to imagine what the executives at Fox thought when they saw the film. From what I understand they didn’t give Judge enough money to finish post-production, forcing Robert Rodriguez to step in and offer his digital FX services for free. The rough edges work – instead of perfect CGIscapes we get matte shots that recall the Big Idea scifi movies of the 60s and 70s like Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, and Theodore Shapiro’s score has more than a little Planet of the Apes in it.
What’s been great has been seeing the lukewarm reaction to the movie in some segments of the internet. People who bought the DVD at their local Best Buy before heading to TGI Fridays for some dinner watched Idiocracy and felt Judge’s cinematic finger j’accusing them. There’s a strain of people who partake of the grotesque Middle American culture but remain bemused by it; these people feel like they’re not part of it. But they are, and Judge is reminding them of their complicity. I wish this movie had been put into wide release just to see how angry it would have made the general populace.
But beyond all the anger and the bold faced social commentary, Idiocracy is just a very funny movie, filled with great bits and quotable dialogue (I use Justin Long’s diagnosis of Luke Wilson all the time now: "It says on your chart you’re fucked up, you talk like a fag and your shit’s all retarded") . And it’s a movie that’s going to disappear for a couple of years until someone respected and funny namedrops it in an interview, or some hip magazine puts it on a list, or a group of kids in a college dorm somewhere recognize how entirely great the movie is and starts a movement. Idiocracy’s not going to be appreciated now, but sometime in the future. Just before everybody’s too stupid to understand it.