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President Camacho (Terry Crews) and Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) in Idiocracy
‘As horrifying as 1984 or Brave New World’: President Camacho (Terry Crews) and Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) in Idiocracy. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox/Van Redin
‘As horrifying as 1984 or Brave New World’: President Camacho (Terry Crews) and Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) in Idiocracy. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox/Van Redin

Idiocracy: a disturbingly prophetic look at the future of America – and our era of stupidity

Mike Judge critiques the nonsense of the modern world in this dystopian 2006 comedy – which, in 2021, feels more like a documentary

Idiocracy is available to stream via Google Play, Amazon and iTunes. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

Are we living in the age of stupid? The era of the idiot? The answer of course is yes, with examples of monstrous moronicism everywhere – from climate deniers to the “plandemic” crowd who believe Covid-19 was cooked up in Bill Gates’ basement. On the other hand, human beings have always been illogical creatures. A better question is whether we are, as a species, becoming dumberer. If this is already the era of the idiot, what comes next?

An “Idiocracy”, according to film-maker Mike Judge. The Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill and Silicon Valley creator’s dystopian 2006 comedy (which he directed and co-wrote with Etan Cohen) arrived with its own terminology to help us prepare for the upcoming reality TV special that we may call The Collapse of Reality Itself.

Suggesting that morons rather than nerds will inherit the earth, and that the results will be catastrophic, the film begins with a context-setting intro so real it hurts. Judge cuts between an intelligent adult couple discussing why they won’t be having children right now (“not with the market the way it is”) and a ... less intelligent couple breeding like rabbits (“I thought youse was on the pill or some shit?”).

Observing that “evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence”, the narrator explains that “with no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most – and left the intelligent to become an endangered species”.

In the current era I couldn’t help but think of the BirthStrikers, taking a reasoned response to the climate crisis while hordes of the hoi polloi refuse to accept there is even a problem. Also that famous quote often attributed to Charles Bukowski: “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

The story follows mellow everyman Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), who is selected by the US army to participate in an experiment to test cryogenic hibernation. He’s chosen because he’s average in every way: average IQ; averagely inoffensive personality; even an average heart rate. Placed inside a machine and expected to wake up one year later, the experiment goes awry and instead Joe and his fellow participant – a sex worker named Rita (Maya Rudolph) – emerge 500 years later. It’s the year 2505 and Joe is now the smartest person on earth by a very wide margin.

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The environment has crumbled and garbage is stacked in huge mounds, like the mountains of rubbish in WALL-E. A blunt-smoking doctor at the hospital (Justin Long) is shocked that Joe doesn’t have a barcode on his arm, like everybody else, and asks, “Why come you no have a tattoo?” He’s one of the more eloquent people; most speak a butchered dialect combining groans, grunts, insults and slang words.

This disturbingly hilarious film is as horrifying as 1984 or Brave New World, but takes a different route – emphasising the dangers of collective incompetence rather than oppressiveness of the state. Its Urban Dictionary entry reads: “A movie that was originally a comedy, but became a documentary.”

Luke Wilson as Joe Bauers
Luke Wilson as Joe Bauers in Idiocracy. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

In a 2017 interview discussing the end of political correctness, Terry Crews – who plays President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho – described Idiocracy as “so prophetic in so many ways it actually scares people”. When Camacho lets off rounds of an automatic rifle to get people’s attention in the House of Representatives (now called the “House of Representin’”), it’s hard not to think of the carnival US politics became under Trump.

Many visual and verbal gags highlight a capitalist hellscape, in which language has basically become a function of advertising. We see a billboard, for instance, with the spiel: “If you don’t smoke Tarrlytons ... Fuck you!” Every time customers enter Costco, an employee at the door greets them with: “Welcome to Costco, I love you.”

The restaurant chain Fuddruckers has changed its name to Buttfuckers. The most popular show on TV is called Ow, My Balls! and the current Oscar winner is a single unbroken shot of a naked butt. A Gatorade-like sports drink called Brawndo (the “thirst mutilator”) has replaced water; people even water crops with it (which of course no longer grow). Fox News is the only news source. Starbucks offers handjobs.

The film’s savage critique of American corporatisation may be why 20th Century Fox, its distributor, got cold feet and effectively buried it, releasing Idiocracy in just enough cinemas (without so much as a theatrical trailer) to satisfy contractual requirements. The film got bigger with time and became a cult hit, roughly mirroring the trajectory of Judge’s previous feature Office Space (which also achieved popularity only on home release).

The jokes flow thick and fast and the premise, while a little one-note, never gets old. The underlying message of course is that humans ought to take such things as science, research and knowledge seriously, lest we create our own Idiocracy.

Will we heed the warning? In the cacophony of modern existence, with so much stupidity flying at us from so many directions, it’s difficult to be optimistic. One day future humans may very well ask – provided they are still capable of forming a sentence – why come we no listen?

  • Idiocracy is available to stream in Australia via Google Play, Amazon and iTunes.

This article was amended on 23 July 2021. Idiocracy was co-written by Etan Cohen, not “Ethan Cohen” as an earlier version had it.

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