Why Idiocracy is just a little bit misunderstood

I can safely say that Idiocracy, the cult comedy from the incomparable Mike Judge, is one of my favourite films. It’s not screamingly funny (it does raise a smile), its direction is merely competent, and the characters are generally rather weak. For all its faults, however, it really strummed a chord with me.

Now, if you’re familiar with the film, you may have an idea why I liked it. You may also be wrong, because I get the distinct impression Idiocracy is a little misunderstood by its fans.

Idiocracy, for those of you who don’t know, is a 2006 comedy starring Luke Wilson as Joe Bauers, a member of the US Army who is sent to a future where everyone is a tv-watchin’, beer swillin’ grade-A moron. The world is falling apart as everything is catered to only the basest of impulses (fast food, sex, slapstick humour), and the fiercely anti-intellectual society has bred itself into abject stupidity. Mr Bauers, completely typical in his own time, is regarded as a genius, and becomes a hero.

So what’s to be misunderstood? It’s a scathing condemnation of our lowest-common-denominator culture, right? If things continue the way they’re going, pretty soon we’ll be wallowing around in our own filth, getting handjobs at Starbucks?

Well, yes. Sort of. Mike Judge’s bread-and-butter is seemingly dumb humour with real bite (he’s the guy who made Beavis and Butthead, Office Space and King of the Hill), so he’s too smart for that sort of thing. In my opinion, Idiocracy was far more about criticising the intended audience than the culture it so obviously lampoons. You know, the people who ‘get it’. The people who feel like the protagonist, the only sane person in a sea of ignorance.

Think about it. The main character is completely average. He’s Joe Bauers, average Joe. He’s not the smartest, or the strongest, but by virtue of the stupidity of those around him, he becomes the hero. The hero is, by our standards, a completely average person who does absolutely nothing remarkable. He doesn’t triumph in the face of adversity, there’s no great emotional payoff, no personal victory. For the struggle he faces, this makes him far more like you or I than any other “common man” hero, because he doesn’t have any remarkable quality that allows him to beat the odds.

“I thought your head would be bigger,” says President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho when he first meets our hero. The whole world has this idea of what the genius who’s going to save us all looks like – an egghead. It’s funny because we all know that believing smart people are somehow superhuman (sporting larger craniums to hold their massive, throbbing brains) is a stupid thing to believe, yet we still imagine that the geniuses will save society. You know, with their science and Mars landers and stuff. They’ll save us and be our heroes. All we have to do is say we support them and condemn the idiots, and our job is done.

“Five-time ultimate Smackdown champion, porn superstar and President of the United States.”

From what I’ve seen on the internet, it seems like people use this film as a security blanket to make themselves feel more intelligent. “Thank god someone hates this awful culture as much as I do!” they seem to say. “Mike Judge gets it! Everything’s so disposable and trashy, I’m glad he feels as lost as I do and takes the same pleasure in skewering those fools who watch reality tv and footbaaah!”

I sympathise, because although it made me a little uncomfortable on my first viewing, that’s what I thought the film was about, too. However, on a second viewing, I don’t think that’s quite what Mike Judge was aiming for.

The film’s greatest failing is that it could’ve done more to drive its point home. Instead, it’s squeezed it into a single line, where Joe says “I think maybe the world got like this because of people like me”. Not because of ‘idiots breeding’, not because of shitty television, advertising, or a sustained campaign of anti-intellectualism, but because of average people, like the viewers (ie you and I), who had endless opportunities to improve themselves and didn’t. Because they were too busy looking at everyone else and thinking “well, at least I’m smarter than you.”

So Idiocracy is one of my favourite films, not because it criticises others, but because it criticises me. It’s not just poking fun at our the trashier aspects of society with Mike Judge’s trademark clever-dumb sense of humour (really, any film that contains an energy drink called ‘Brawndo’ is a winner in my book), but poking fun at the arrogant, superior attitudes of average people who might agree. And it’s done so subtly that most people don’t seem to get it. I didn’t get it until last night either.

I guess we’re not as smart as we thought we were.