Idiocracy Review

Yeh. Lik, u no, wateva. 'S sweet flik man.


Sorry, did you want more? Excuse me, a silly question, of course you did. Being a reader of DVD Times, you’ve already shown yourself to be a person of considerable intellect and discernment, one who would never make do with an inane, one-line critique like the one above. However, be warned: if Idiocracy is to be believed you might very well soon find yourself in a distinct minority, for writer/director Mike Judge’s film opens with the thesis that we as a people are getting ever more stoopider, and with each generation that passes our collective IQ is dropping faster than you can say "Gene-what now?" The theory goes that these days society is so beset with problems and worries and concerns that anyone with an ounce of intelligence will hesitate before daring to add more stress to their lives by having children, but that the Cletus and Brandines of this world are too busy shagging their brains out to be worrying about anything beyond the next thirty seconds. As a result, soon the offspring of the latter will far outweigh those of the former, which over time will have the cumulative effect of turning the entire human race into a mass of morons unable to think for themselves, express themselves beyond monosyllabic grunts or indeed do anything more than follow their base urges to the detriment of everything else. It’s a nightmarish scenario - for a start, there'd be no DVD Times - and one in which the film’s hero and heroine, gormless army slacker Joe Bauers and tart-with-a-heart Rita (Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph), find themselves when an army experiment propels them five hundred years into this horrible future. Desperate to return, Bauers pals up with slacker Frito (Dax Shepard), a dullard who despite spending his entire life watching such television treats as Ow! My Balls and The Masturbation Channel qualifies as this century’s equivalent of a high powered lawyer, and sets off in search of a rumoured time machine. Along the way, Bauers takes a test which reveals him to be the World’s Most Intelligent Man, leading to the jive-talking President Camancho (Terry Crews) enlisting his help to reverse the increasingly common crop failures which are threatening the planet. Can he and Rita save the day and still make it back to their own time in one piece?

They're not the only ones having difficulties; their creator, too, had an ordeal in trying to get his film into cinemas. Amid rumours of poor testing, Idiocracy's release date kept getting pushed further and further back, until its originally scheduled debut of August 2005 had turned into September 2006. There seemed to be a great reluctance on Fox's part to get it out there, and when it was finally allowed to make an appearance, the studio did nothing at all to promote it - no trailers were broadcast, no posters issued, nowt. Indeed, calling it a release at all is a bit of an exaggeration - in total it was screened in less than 150 cinemas in the whole of the US, and there was some speculation on the internet that the Fox executives were nervous at its satirical evisceration of big corporations with whom the studio had a relationship. With the arrival of the film now on DVD, the first time most in the UK will have had a chance to see it it’s perhaps easy to see why they might have been nervous.

Indeed, anybody familiar with Mike Judge’s previous work are in for a bit of a shock. Up until now the creator of Beavis & Butt Head and King of the Hill has been a fairly benign satirist, highlighting the quirks and foibles of certain sections of American society without necessarily condemning them. His characters are, by and large, sympathetically treated, whether it be the uptight red neck Hank Hill, the oddball office worker Milton from his first film Office Space or those perennial teenage nitwits. His mickey-taking is hardly ever reproachful, and his exasperation with his characters flaws tempered with an amused affection. That said, he does occasionally taken his kid gloves off when he feels someone deserves it, the perfect example being Gary Cole’s oleaginous office boss Lumbergh in Office Space but such harshness has always been tempered by an apparent goodness of everybody else surrounding. Not so Idiocracy. This is a film in a far less forgiving mood, a savage attack on what is perceived as the increasing stupidity of much of Western - specifically American - youth culture. Looking round, Judge sees everywhere an increasingly dozy population, one which is happy to passively follow the latest trend, engaging unthinkingly with whatever drivel is served up - whether it be in a fast food restaurant, the latest fashion or consumer products, or on a television increasingly dominated by cheap and easy fare pandering to the lowest common denominator.

The film posits the view that the US is dominated by a junk food culture, dominated by a bunch of collaborating and incredibly cynical national corporations who are exploiting and manipulating the tastes of the young to rake in vast profits at the expense of society at large. This is not exactly a new concept - the past few years has seen a mass of films such as Super Size Me or Thank You For Smoking which have been about the same thing - but I can’t think of another film that is quite so full of impotent rage and frustration at the status quo. Judge’s attacks are crude and vicious - watch, for example, his painfully accurate take on Jackass, a show whose sole purpose is to watch a bunch of fools dicking around and whose punchline is nearly always some sort of hilarious physical injury, in Ow! My Balls! which serves up scene after scene in which… well you can imagine. The movie reflects a world of instant gratification - Ow! My Balls has no build-up to its literal punchline, for instance, while the Starbucks shown no longer just serves up instant coffee but throws in a handjob at the same time - and is deeply selfish and self-absorbed. The fast food chain Carl Jrs’s slogan, which in our own day is the pretty bad “Don’t bother me, I’m eating”, will apparently evolve in five hundred years time to “Fuck you! I’m eating!” and will cheerfully steal from its customers who are too dopey to realise.

But for Judge society itself is much to blame for the rubbish we consume everyday. We are complicit in our own downfall, prepared to cut corners for convenience's sake. One of the most striking sequences in the film occurs when our heroes visit Costco, which has evolved into an internal mini-city of its very own, its shelves become skyscrapers and aisles roads so long that the place has its very own monorail system. Like today’s malls, it has everything you could possibly want under one roof, including its own university - why should we bother going anywhere else when having it all under one roof makes things so much easier? The problem is it’s not just our own lives that suffer from such lack of choice and corporate submission, but the physical world too. Idiocracy’s Earth is knee-deep in waste but no one even seems to notice any more - this is a population so unwilling to engage in its environment that people literally drive off the edge of half-finished bridges. Literally wallowing in its own filth, the place is epitomised by the President, a moron whose craven, unthinking acceptance of big business is directly causing an environmental disaster. Hmmm, remind you of anyone? Like I say, this isn’t a subtle film but it hammers home its point again and again and again. The US is collectively a fuckwit and its people are allowing themselves to be drawn ever deeper into the spiral of … well, idiocracy. It’s a movie which wants to grasp the country by its lapels, shake it vigorously and slap it around screaming “What the fuck do you think you are DOING? Pull yourself together before it’s too late!”

It’s a depressed view of the current situation, but as a whole, I’m not sure I entirely agree with Judge’s take. It’s certainly the case that there is much about popular US culture which takes one’s breath away, with a section of society which venerates self-absorbed waste of spaces (anyone not thinking of Paris Hilton here?) and is itself shockingly self-absorbed (if one was going to be a Pseud about it, one could posit that Jackass’s popularity, based to some degree on a foundation of gleeful schadenfraude, is a perfect reflection of the me-me-me-screw-you ethos) but I would also argue that over the past few years there has been an increasing awareness both of this fact and a marked desire to re-engage. The popularity of films like Super Size Me show that there is an audience out there willing to listen (although sadly it would seem some of that film’s effects are now beginning to fade away) while there seems to be a new desire among many people to improve both their own lifestyles and their environment around them (literally). The internet has led to a greater dissemination of ideas and views, and while much of what is written in blogs is tosh, the very fact more and more people are reading - and, more importantly, thinking - means there is an improvement in critical faculty over even, say, five years ago. People who would never read a newspaper in their life are engaging in political issues (often cutting out the politicians themselves, which is not always a bad thing) while the reign of George Bush Jr seems to have acted as a wake-up call to much of an America that had grown deeply complaisant during the Clinton era. To me, Idiocracy’s pessimism feels half a decade out of date.

That said, it is undoubtedly often very funny, in an incredibly blunt way. It’s the little touches that work the best: the water fountain that delivers not water but a type of Gatorade called Brawndo, the gormless punter who Rita manages to get to pay up without putting out, the pleasingly appropriate fate of the Ow! My Balls star at the film’s end. At times there’s an argument to be made that Judge occasionally crosses the very line he’s railing against, with some of the gags going for the very lowest-common-denominator laugh his film is satirising - hearing that the number one box office hit is called Ass is vaguely amusing (perhaps in tribute to the Warhol film), actually seeing an extended clip of said film in which we see a guy farting is not - and there’s some stuff that doesn’t work as well, such as a courtroom sequence which goes on too long. (Watch out, though, for Judge regular Stephen Root making an uncredited cameo as the judge). Co-written with King of the Hill writer Etan Cohen (no connection) the film often belies the cartoon background of the pair, with jokes that would work in animated form, such as the afore-mentioned ass, not coming across nearly as well as flesh and blood.

What does come across are the visuals which are (especially considering the low budget) superb. The world of the future is gorgeously realised, a planet of rubbish-strewn filth that is both abhorrent yet absorbing. Making extensive use of some beautiful CGI, we are presented with a world in which skyscrapers are literally held up by ropes, vast mountains of rubbish dominate the skyline, and huge wrestling arenas are filled with fearsome vehicles of mass destruction. Although the CGI backgrounds are often obvious, they have a depth that makes them marvellous to behold, while the sets themselves are stuffed with Simpsons- like throwaway gags, ramshackle vehicles and a living, breathing community. Perhaps surprisingly given he’s primarily an animator, Judge is not always the most striking director visually (although there is one stunning shot early on in which it’s revealed that a mountain of rubbish is really far, far bigger than it initially appears) but he maximises the tools at his disposal and gives the movie a memorable look, helped along by a couple of ambitious set pieces that really do work. Compared to the functional Office Space this is a far more attractive film to watch.

However, it’s unfortunate that the main strength of Judge’s first movie, its characterisation, is almost totally lost here. He’s always been an ace at creating memorable characters - after all, Beavis & Butt Head were one of the icons of the early Nineties - but there’s not a single person in this film you’ll still recall in six months. There’s no Milton, or Dale Gribble, or Lumbergh, and in the main the leads are functional but unremarkable. As the hero, Luke Wilson does what he has to do, be an observer around which the film’s thesis can be expounded, and he’s perfectly serviceable without ever once showing any particular spark. (Much as I dislike his brother Owen, he has a presence which Luke just doesn’t have.) He’s surrounded by a bunch of nonentities who admittedly throw themselves into their roles with gusto, but don’t have enough, either in their own bag of tricks or in the script, to make them leap off the screen. As Rita, Rudolph is a typical sort, while Shepard tries to invest his character with something approaching a soul but can’t get there. Of the secondary characters, only Crews’s President has anything like a substantial role, but again, while he gets into the part exuberantly there's nothing you haven’t seen before.

Which is something that could be said of the film as a whole. Ultimately Judge has allowed his innate fury at the subject matter to overshadow his main strengths as a writer. Essentially Idiocracy is a one-gag movie, forgetting in the process to bring with it any of the memorable characters that gave Office Space its second lease of life on DVD. Ironically given Idiocracy’s theme, this sophomore effort is indeed a regression for the director, being not nearly as rounded or satisfying as his first live action feature. Coming across like a cruder, harsher, more cynical version of Futurama, this is a two-dimensional story which, given its relatively simple main point and sledge-hammer approach, might have worked better as a cartoon short rather than an eighty minute feature. As it is, it’s just short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and has enough variations on the theme - just - to merit a watch and induce some hearty chuckles, but its constant hammering home of the same idea again and again and relative lack of anything new to say on the subject means that it’s too slight an effort to linger in the memory long. If this had been Judge’s first live-action feature it would have been a worry - if this is all he can do, he might as well stick to the cartoon shorts - but Office Space has shown he has more to him than this seems to imply. Hopefully in a year or so, once there’s sufficient distance between him and the problems he had to get the film out, he’ll be able to look at it dispassionately, realise his mistakes, and come back with a far better effort third time around. As it is, this is amusing but too blunt a weapon to ever be a world changer.

Idiocracy is presented on a single dual-layered DVD. The menu is made up of one of the multi-channel screens as seen in the film which incorporates the options in a series of adverts and corporate logos. The four options are Play, Scene Selection (with twenty chapters), Language Selection and Special Features, the latter of which comprise of only a handful of very brief deleted scenes to be found, none of which amount to very much, and a weblink.

The main feature and deleted scenes are all subtitled.

Both the Video and Audio are functional but unimpressive. The Video has the odd compression problem, and detail is blurred in backgrounds, but it does its job okay, while the Audio occasionally comes to life in sequences such as that set in the arena but in general plods along doing its job and little more.

Hardly surprisingly, this is an underwhelming release for a film which is not quite as good as it should be. Here’s hoping Mike Judge has better luck in every department next time around.

6 out of 10
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out of 10

Last updated: 24/06/2018 14:14:50

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