Movies for the Resistance: Idiocracy

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Dax Shepard, Terry Crews, Justin Long and Andrew Wilson
Directed by: Mike Judge
Running time: 84 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 2006

 

To quote director Mike Judge, who saw his brilliant satire Idiocracy go from studio embarrassment to cult classic in a remarkably short amount of time, “I was off by 490 years.” Most of us knew his future where morons inherit the Earth was coming, but few of us suspected it would arrive so soon. And yet here we are, watching TPTB water the crops with Brawndo EVERY SINGLE DAY and a substantial chunk of the populace actively wondering why the rest of us are freaking out.

There’s little doubt that it’s here. The question is what to do about it.

You’re likely familiar with the film’s basic premise by now, a dystopian 26th Century in which the idiots out-bred the rest of humanity. Luke Wilson’s hapless (and literal) average Joe emerges from a 500-year hibernation to find himself the one-eyed man in the land of the unbelievably stupid: surly, hostile, smug in their self-assurance and utterly clueless about the problems created by the shitheap they’re living in.

In and of itself, Idiocracy suffers from undue repetition. The first twenty-five minutes or so rank among the funniest moments ever put on film, but once you grasp the concept, each joke feels progressively like the last. At least it used to. In retrospect, that repetition becomes an integral part of the humor… or more precisely, part of the satire. The world onscreen is drab, monotonous and devoid of anything substantive: piles of garbage stretch as high as skyscrapers, junk food – sometimes just tubs of goo – constitutes the only form of nutrition, and conversations consist of passive insults and catch phrases repeated with the somnambulistic tones of a zombie. The constant drumbeat of supidity – the sheer, grinding constancy of it – becomes a part of the world, as necessary to the message as the copious product placement or the horrified audience surrogate realizing there’s no escape.

In a lot of ways, we’re in even worse shape than he is. The residents of his drool-heavy society could at least change their worldview based on new information. Their leader – the gloriously named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) – is also humble enough to acknowledge that he doesn’t know everything, and trusts a smarter man to solve the problem when necessary. That stands as a model of rationality when compared to our current leadership, and too many of us now are far too accustomed to responding like Joe: gazing in stunned disbelief at what just happened and marveling at how so many who saw what we did fail to understand the dangers.

Granted, the pain of that equation comes with the comfort that someone out there knows how it feels, and a reminder that a large number of us are speaking up. (Joe has only Maya Rudolph’s unfrozen prostitute Rita to fall back on.) Judge’s prescient enunciation gives form to our fears and helps us laugh at them as a way of fighting back: humor’s value as a weapon has rarely been so potent as it is today.

The film also extols the virtues of persistence, and finding ways to communicate with people who, on the surface at least, appear to be beyond help. Joe stumbles from misadventure to misadventure, but he keeps at it – what the hell else is he going to do? – and eventually succeeds in averting disaster. “There was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn’t just for fags and neither was writing,” he tells the crowd at his triumphant inauguration, suggesting that patience and diligent adherence to reality can make progress (however haltingly or temporarily).

But it’s a huge challenge – for him and for us – and our hero has to get knocked on his heels time and again by the giant wall of stupidity in front of him before he can succeed. Sadly, the real world is rapidly outpacing him. The growing coarseness of our culture, the disdain for objective facts and the assumption that an uninformed opinion is somehow the equivalent of years of expertise… they were bad before the movie came out and that trend has only accelerated in the ensuing years. Addressing the issue means long, hard conversations with people who simply don’t want to listen, and a devotion to recognizing unpleasant truths in the face of widespread indifference.

No one said it would be easy, but it’s necessary to prevent disaster. Because sometimes, we really need to know whose ass it was and why it was farting. And if the Average Joes aren’t going to ask those questions, who will?

 

Today in Movie History: February 21

It’s another slow day, so we’re going to go with a 80s thriller that holds up reasonably well. The Hitcher stands as a case-in-point example of why you should never ever pick up a hitchhiker. Good Samaritan C. Thomas Howell stops for a guy stranded on the side of the road in the rain, only to soon realize that the guy is:

1) Rutger Hauer, and therefore:

2) completely Loony Tunes.

Let the wild rumpus start.

The film works well on the most basic levels, which was enough to grant it a modest cult following. It also benefits from Jennifer Jason Leigh in an otherwise throwaway role of Designated Sympathetic Girlfriend Type, and a fun cameo from future Star Trek alum Armin Shimerman. The Hitcher opened today in 1986.

 

Today in Movie History: February 20

A very quiet President’s Day is marked by a single notable western: How The West Was Won, following a family of settlers over the course of several generations as they journey from New York to California. It’s sumptuous and grand, as you’d expect from MGM, and was rewarded both with immense box office success and a trio of Academy Awards. The soundtrack is a high point, but the strength of the cast (including Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds) and gorgeous cinematography make up for some of the “rah rah white people” vibe that periodically crops up. How The West Was Won opened today in 1963.

 

 

Today in Movie History: February 17

There are times when you want to revel in the artistry of cinema as an art form, when the possibilities of the medium greet you in an overwhelming rush, when the combination of a brilliant director, a perfect script and a talented team of hard-working artists creates a masterpiece for the ages. Then there’s times when you just want George Carlin to help you pass your history test with a time-travelling phone booth. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure opened today in 1989.

If 80s icons are your thing, there’s also Footloose, the tale of Kevin Bacon and a bunch of feelgood teens sticking it to John Lithgow’s stuffy preacher who wants to outlaw dancing. DANCING. It opened today in 1984.

Director William Castle didn’t quite have the brutal efficiency of Roger Corman or the strangely beautiful incompetence of Ed Wood. What he did have was gimmicks — tons and tons of gimmicks — designed to get boomer kids into the theater just to watch skeletons come at them on strings or nurses take their blood pressure in the lobby to ensure that they were physically fit enough to endure whatever schlock was waiting for them on screen. One of his better efforts, the original House on Haunted Hill, first hit screens today in 1959.

 

Today in Movie History: February 16

I confess a soft spot for Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, a strange and marvelous little horror film that puts Barker’s talents for the weird and unusual on full display. A tale of beautiful monsters and the men who put their evil to shame, it features (among other things) a surprisingly good performance from fellow horror director David Cronenberg as (what else?) a crazed serial killer. It opened today in 1990.

It seems like we always pair a horror movie with a kids’ movie, and in honor of that trend, we present Muppet Treasure Island. Jim Henson’s creations have had their ups and downs, but this one proved a winner, with the gang having great fun with various pirate clichés and the great Tim Curry — one of the few actors who could share the screen with Jim Henson’s beloved creations and not get blown off the stage — playing Long John Silver. Muppet Treasure Island opened today in 1996.