The path to Idiocracy

June 5, 2007

Fans of Mike Judge (creator of Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill, and cult critique of corporate craziness Office Space) have likely heard of Idiocracy. As writer and director of that film, Judge once again proves himself as one of the funniest people in America, cloaking caustic social satire behind crude humor and dimwitted characters. It actually came out last Fall, but don’t feel out of sorts if you heard nothing about the film. Fox actually dumped Idiocracy into just a few markets with little marketing and promotion, and it quietly disappeared from theaters shortly thereafter. Office Space met a similar fate when it came out in 1999, but it has developed a huge following among those who deal with various absurdities in the workplace: technology that gets the kerflooey, micromanagement by multiple bosses, working overtime to make up for the “rightsizing” of other employees, mastery of bureaucratic lingo over accomplishing real work, and so on.

Idiocracy has yet to receive the same cult affection as Office Space, but it shares a few similartities. As an example, it examines our frustrations when technology doesn’t work. However, unlike Office Space, Idiocracy takes place 500 years in the future. Selected by the military for a hibernation experiment on account of his “avergeness,” Everyman Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) remains in stasis for much longer than anticipated after the experiment gets shut down. Luckily (marginally speaking), he awakens from his sleep due to the Great Garbage Avalanche of 2505. As Joe starts wandering around, he realizes that people have become… well, not-so-bright, as the title indicates. In addition, technology pretty well takes care of the most important tasks (when it bothers to work), and even the most venerated of professions have become parodies of their former selves. Joe learns this when he wanders into St. God’s Memorial Hospital, and ends up in a rowdy courtroom for not having a barcode tattoo that would have enabled him to pay for his diagnosis by a Dr. Lexus (provided that Joe had a bank account, of course). In fact, many characters in Idiocracy are named after products and companies, including Joe’s lawyer Frito (Dax Shepard), who obtained his law degree at Costco. Joe also learns that he is the smartest person around, along with a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph) who was part of the same hibernation experiment. With Frito’s assistance, they eventually avert a national crisis whose solution would seem obvious to the rest of us, but not to a population that puts its faith in the power of the sports drink Brawndo (with electrolytes).

I would tell more, but too much would give away the satirical genius of Judge’s film. Admittedly, its projection of a future filled with dimwits seems a bit exaggerated, but the film works best if one views it as an x-treme caricature of the present. In fact, something that happened this weekend to Diane and I actually inspired this posting.

En route to getting a new laptop for Diane, we stopped at a Texaco near our house. As you may know, pumps at some stations have automated squawk boxes that try peddling some “points” program while you fill up your vehicle. Of course, you can press a mute button to stop the message, but it seems annoying to have something else pitched to you while you’re already purchasing gas. (Since Texaco sponsors the Metropolitan Opera, why not play some lovely music instead of a sales pitch? I can just envision a tie-in album entitled Pumpin’ to Puccini.) In Diane’s case, she had to push the mute button a few times before the squawk box actually shut up. After filling up the tank, we drove up to the station’s car wash. On the keypad at the car wash entrance, Diane entered the five-digit code to activate the car wash, which included a “4.” Unfortunately, that digit didn’t work, so she backed out and pulled up to the store to get a new code. We drove back to the car wash entrance, Diane entered the new code, and the keypad read the “1” in that code as a “2.” With the vapid cheerfulness of a second-rate game show host, the keypad helpfully pointed out, “Sorry, but that number is incorrect.”

As Diane grew more infuriated at the machine, I thought of the scene in Idiocracy where a woman unsuccessfully tries ordering a colorfully-named size of fries at an automated Carl’s Jr. kiosk. (In the future depicted in Idiocracy, characters throw around “colorful” language so casually that one no longer has to worry about mispronouncing Fuddruckers anymore.) I pointed out the parallels between that scene and our predicament to Diane, who was amused but still infuriated about the machine failing twice.

When we went back to the store after the second keypad failure, Diane asked for a refund. One of the clerks said that we couldn’t get one because we paid at the pump. However, the other clerk there (probably a manager) pointed out that we could get a refund, but not in cash… or something like that; it was throughly confusing. Somehow, that didn’t work out either, and Diane said that she would just come back later to get her car washed. Remembering what happened to the woman at the Carl’s Jr. machine in Idiocracy, I’m not so sure; next time around, the keypad could have a self-defense upgrayedd (er, upgrade). Considering the present-day craziness that Idiocracy extrapolates and exaggerates 500 years hence, this would come as little surprise.


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