Half-joking comparisons between our present crisis and the future portrayed in the 2006 dark comedy, Idiocracy, have offered some comic release from our present crisis. However, there is a darker theme sitting beneath the obvious satire and the laugh lines, a detail that is never explored in the film’s plot. That detail is starting to trouble me.
If you’ve never seen the movie, here’s the premise. A man and woman selected specifically for their ordinariness, are placed in a military hibernation experiment. The experiment is forgotten, and they wake up 500 years later in an environment in which they are the smartest human beings alive.
The world of the future is ludicrously crude, dysfunctional and crumbling into ruins. President and former pro-wrestler Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho is struggling with a crisis. Crops won’t grow, even though they have been aggressively fertilized with Brawndo, a popular sports drink. Our heroes struggle against violent persecution to save the fools around them by persuading them to adopt a novel practice – putting water on crops.
It used to be a moderately funny movie. Then it started to become a little uncomfortable. Now it is morphing into our generation’s 1984. Idiocracy might be best understood as a horror film.
In the film, nothing seems to work. Homes are falling down. Garbage is piled everywhere. Health care is a ruinous shamble. The most popular sitcom is a show called “Ow, my balls.” Advertising slogans have merged with popular culture, as marketing taglines become mantras. Nothing actually works in the world depicted in the film. Everything is collapsing to a degree that begins to threaten human existence.
While the film focuses on the hilarity of a culture of idiots who spray sports drinks on farm fields (thanks to the commercial tagline – “Brawndo, it’s got what plants crave,”) it glosses over a detail. Beneath this premise lies a paradox. There are bar code scanners that successfully process these people’s transactions. Brawndo and Mountain Dew are able to efficiently manufacture and mass-distribute their products. Starbucks, which is now a brothel, is able to conduct business.
Behind the comedy lies a quiet horror that never finds its way into the stated plot. Someone, somewhere else, in a place which is not shown to us in the film, is making a fine living. In a world in which politics has ceased to be relevant as an engine for improving the human condition, millions of ordinary people are being bled to death. Beyond that realm, there must be another existence we never glimpse; a place where things still work.
This goofy little lark of a film has layers we have largely ignored. It may be time for us to update our definition of dystopia.
For Brawndo and Starbucks and Carl’s Jr. and Costco to continue to function and thrive in this Idiocracy, an entire class of humans must have escaped the reach of democratic politics. They exist in a realm beyond the conception, much less the authority, of President Camacho and his cabinet of simpletons. Idiocracy may not be about the descent of humans into stupidity, but rather the collapse of politics as a means of achieving common human interests.
Picture a scenario in which successful (not necessarily smart or good) people have largely withdrawn off into their own realm, a place where everything works, innovations are quickly absorbed, and life is a seemingly endless cycle of improvement. These communities lose most of their connection to the geography and politics around them, having more in common with cohorts in similar enclaves around the world than with less affluent communities an hours’ drive away.
In the communities they left behind, dysfunction piles onto dysfunction, compounding existing challenges into crises. Efforts to express their desperation are turned aside and ignored. Frustration boils over and they saddle an existing political system with the burden of an erratic, populist autocrat. It makes no difference. Their autocrat is merely a grifter, enriching himself at every turn while the job itself is neglected. Their outburst merely pours energy into efforts by the more affluent to insulate themselves.
Capable, bright people joined together in successful enclaves build the institutional bulwarks necessary to protect their lives and their communities from a dysfunctional democracy. Under the leadership of a long series of increasingly weak and incompetent charlatans, ordinary people are eventually anesthetized into compliance and exploitation.
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Thank goodness it’s just a movie.