13 March 2008

Idiocracy

Mike Judge _hates_ stupid people. It's funny that his work, especially Beavis and Butthead, is popularly seen as catering to (and fostering) the lowest common denominator, because for the most part, it's a vicious lampooning of stupidity and anti-intellectualism. While I appreciate his work, I occasionally find it somewhat uncomfortable, in that he tends to prey on the lower classes, which verges on a type of elitism I find particularly distasteful. This movie, co-written with Ethan Coen, teeters along that line as well, but nonetheless, it starts from an interesting premise - imagine that in a military experiment gone wrong, two "average" people wake up 500 years in the future and discover that they are the smartest people alive. How did this happen? Well, as the movie points out in the beginning, the people with the highest iqs aren't the one having the most children. While this is an interesting problem in its own right, it tends towards the slippery slope of eugenics, so let's just leave it to the side. So the movie isn't all that great - the story is kind of lame, the humor is good, but, I think, would be more suited to an inebriated audience, and the vision of the future is pretty half-baked, especially by being limited to the US alone, and riddled with inconsistency. However, the focus on stupidity is kind of intriguing. I actually first heard about the film on NPR, where it was reviewed alongside another movie (whose title I unfortunately have forgotten, which sucks because I was actually far more interested in checking it out than this one) as part of a discussion about a rising interest in what it means to be dumb. As the program pointed out, there are plenty of studies that examine what it means to be smart; how an intelligent brain solves problems, etc. But the opposite end of the spectrum, or more importantly, the lower middle part of it, is relatively unexamined. And while one can generally kind of imagine what it's like to be smart, it's actually _very_ difficult to understand what it's like to be dumb. I mean, think back to when you've been talking to someone and have explained something in what you think are very clear terms, and receive a blank stare in response. You assume that the person either hasn't been paying attention, or you haven't explained it clearly - but it's hard to imagine the perspective of someone who just does. not. understand. What does that mean? Why does that happen? How does such a person see the world?

Though I guess that's a bit of a tangent, because the film doesn't really provide an inquiry into it, or any kind of explanation. Rather, it features a lot of stupid people. And one thing that I found kind of fascinating about it is the way it depicts their stupidity. There are aspects of it that I thought were kind of brilliant. For instance, the movie does an amazing job of casually portraying people who use words that "sound smart" without actually understanding them. Or the mimicry of logical processing that produces inane tautology. This, in the film, is also caught up with the power of advertising and brand identity, though the connection isn't fully fleshed out. This is all kind of fascinating, and at times, quite amusing.

On top of this is the film's more polemical side, namely, a weird sort of moral that seems to be saying that even average people can be pretty smart, and oughta be working up to full potential, and also, that they should have more kids. The main character, played by Luke Wilson, ends up as president, and finally learns to lead instead of following or getting out of the way. I found myself mildly irritated by the fact that the woman who accompanies him into the future ends up as first wife rather than vice president (an honor reserved for the moronic friend he makes), and that no one mentions that she seems to be a hell of a lot smarter than he is. What interesting is that the film does seem to make a point of it, by repeatedly making it clear that Luke Wilson never catches on that she was a prostitute in the past, and not a painter. I wonder why that's such a big thing throughout the movie - is it just to show that Luke Wilson is naive? Is it to show that there's no reason why a prostitute couldn't be mistaken for a painter? Is it to subtly justify why she can't be president herself? I dunno.

What's also creepy about the movie is that, while it's not that good, it's the kind of film that, /i can already tell, will haunt me for ages. Because like all good sci-fi movies, once you've watched it, you start to see the seeds of its vision of the future all around you. To put it bluntly, you start noticing stupidity a lot more, and it makes the movie seem somewhat less implausible.

Ultimately, not a particularly good movie, but still, kind of an interesting one. I see it as part of this larger project that Mike Judge has, a sort of long-running engagement with a particularly American kind of idiocy in various forms, but I feel like this was just sort of thrown together and put out, rather than really thought through. Appropriate to the subject, I suppose. And part of me suspects that really, putting too much thought and energy into this movie wouldn't actually help it - if poked too hard, it would crumble. So this is more like a casual, fly-by what-if scenario. One shouldn't take it too seriously, but all the same, there are some interesting ideas that arise from it.

2 comments:

ZenDenizen said...

Great review. I was haunted by the movie myself and started noticing things around me that indicate we're not far behind. I took a picture of a Billboard for some green sports drink that looked suspiciously like Brawndo or whatever their Gatorade rip-off was.

culture_vulture said...

Thanks!

I thought it was kind of funny, incidentally, that they called the drink Brawndo, but several times in the movie referred to it as Gatorade in a pretty blatant fashion. I wonder if it's because they would have gotten in trouble for using the actual Gatorade logo?