Sometimes satire is painfully true (2007)

I have seen the future, and it’s dopey. The 2006 film Idiocracy takes a dumbed-down world to its nadir, six hundred years from now. Consumers sit at home watching wall-size televisions, crammed with multiple ad-windows. The most popular show,"Ow! My Balls!" features a character who suffers multiple blows to his testicles. The population of half-wits parrot simple slogans, such as "money is good," and are tracked by RFID barcode-style tattoos. Everyone and everything in this black comedy is loud, stupid, and expendable.

Luke Wilson plays the thoroughly average Joe Bauers, an army librarian enlisted for a military hibernation experiment. His companion for the experiment is a prostitute by the name of Rita. After the mission commander is arrested for his extracurricular bidness with Rita’s pimp, the authorities demolish the operation, burying the forgotten pair. Centuries later, their hibernation pods are disturbed by the "Great Garbage Avalanche," in which a mountain of unattended trash rains down onto a 26th century city.

Joe and Rita, not the smartest folks in the world, become just that when they wake up in the future. English has "degenerated into a hybrid of hillbilly, Valley Girl and inner city slang, " and Joe is mocked for his style of speech, which sounds "pompous and faggy" to the people of the future.

In the film, a sports drink company called Brawndo purchases the entire Food and Drug Administration, after water is deemed a threat to the company’s profit margin. People quench their thirst with Brawndo("The Thirst Mutilator") instead. Even the crops are irrigated with the sports drink. When Joe argues against this agricultural policy with White House cabinet members, they sleepily respond with the company’s advertising slogan: "Brawndo’s got what plants crave."

With the real-world Food and Drug Administration in the grip of corporate lobbyists, Idiocracy’s comic prophecy seems more like fifty years in the future than five hundred. Dwayne Alezando Camacho, "five-time Ultimate Smackdown champion, porn superstar, and President of the United States" seems only a hop away, conceptually, from the current occupant of the Oval Office.

President Camacho’s cabinet meetings are all snorting guffaws and brain-dead banter. Contrast this with the recent testimony of the next House Intelligence Committee Chairman, the man tasked to keep the US safe from terror. Last December, representative Silvestre Reyes revealed that he had never heard of Hezbollah. When asked if Al-Qaeda is Shiite or Sunni, he wrongly chose the former.

This is what gives Idiocracy its subversive bite: you laugh bitterly at what seems, for all its absurdity, just a simple extrapolation from present trends. Ironically, the film was financed by 20th Century Fox , which is owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The film’s portrayal of Fox News as forum for trash-talking dimwits may have sealed Idiocracy’s fate, promotionally. Originally destined for theatres, it went straight to DVD.

Perhaps the Fox empire is in a hurry to make Idiocracy more real than reel. Its latest game show offering is Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Adult contestants go up against 5th graders, attempting to answer primary school test questions. (We’re talking reality now.)

I can’t quite figure out this production. Is it a straightforward celebration of antiintellectualism? Or is it a shout-out to America’s confusion of smarts with rote memory? Either way it appears to be broadcasting the message that American adults are dumbasses. The contestants tend to reinforce the message, getting flummoxed by questions like is "Is the US in eastern or Northern Hemisphere?"

Are big broadcasters simply holding up a mirror to society? Or are they offering distorted, fun house reflections, ugly images that viewers are starting to internalize? Perhaps it’s just about corporations stooping to conquer the lowest common denominator. Yet it’s not hard to imagine some social programming behind these high-production bread and circuses. It’s just a refinement of the game invented by Edward Bernays, godfather of the public relations industry.

In Idiocracy’s opening scenes, the narrator offers a simple explanation for the drop in people’s IQs: the smarter, cautious couples were outbred by the yobs with poor impulse control. Whatever we make of that comedic trope, its undeniable that poorly educated, apolitical consumers, amusing themselves to death with hi-tech diversions, are easier to fool than an engaged citizenry. The real game, the real show, in North America is about growing income disparities, decaying infrastructure, and media-mediated dumbing down. Players have one prize-winning question left to answer, before comedy morphs into reality: who benefits from a confederacy of dunces?

Geoff Olson