Movies

How ‘Idiocracy’ Went From An Afterthought To An Uncomfortably Prescient Cult Favorite

At a recent 10th anniversary screening of Idiocracy, director/co-writer Mike Judge explained what sparked the initial idea. He was at Disneyland with his two daughters when two women, each pushing a stroller, started screaming profanities at one another behind him in line. As he stood there trying to ignore the argument unfolding behind him, he began wondering if this was what Walt Disney had envisioned as the future for his theme park.

The year was 2001, coincidentally the title of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 science fiction film that envisioned a world filled with space travel and thundering classical music. With the irony not lost on him, Judge began the first outline of what would eventually become Idiocracy, a 2006 film in which Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), the world’s most average man, wakes up to a bleak, corporate-overrun future devoid of intelligence.

If, as someone who watches cable news and/or experiences the drawbacks of social media far too often, you feel as though you can relate, then you’re not alone. Idiocracy has become a bona fide cult classic and a cutting satire that, while designed to present an exaggerated sense of pessimism and lampoon America’s slavish devotion to consumer culture, has instead wound up mirroring our society just a bit more accurately than anyone had anticipated. The film has, perhaps consequently, earned a devoted fan base. But like many, Idiocracy‘s path to becoming a cult favorite began at a seeming dead end.

Gone And Almost Forgotten

Despite coming from the creator of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-head, Idiocracy first hit theaters with almost no hype, no press screenings, and no enthusiasm or support from a studio whose lack of interest was noticeable and, according to an NPR interview with USC Professor David Whitzman, virtually unprecedented in his previous experience working in film advertising. “Office Space was given a chance in the theaters, and it didn’t do that well — it didn’t do horribly, but it didn’t do great,” Judge said in a recent interview with Fast CoCreate, adding that Idiocracy “wasn’t given a chance at all.”

The day the film was released in September of 2006, in only 130 theaters, the Austin-American Statesman wrote that “a large, worried cloud started hanging over the finished film in late 2004, several months after it was shot at Austin Studios.” Judge was reportedly furious over the complete lack of marketing and refused to do interviews to promote the film. At the time, someone close to Judge went on the record with the paper saying that, “Fox dumped the film,” but that remark was disputed by a representative from Fox Studios who said it, “was an executive decision from the chairman” and that they were not “treating the film coldly.”

Despite those assurances, Fox’s lukewarm enthusiasm was obvious long before the release. In early 2005, more than a year before Idiocracy briefly made it to theaters, the film was shown to select test audiences. By March there were reports that the film wasn’t going over well and reshoots were scheduled for the following summer. Idiocracy started receiving a more positive response and was given a release date of August 5, 2005. That day came and went, and the release date was then pushed back more than a year.

When Esquire profiled Judge in June of 2006, three months before the release, the article was framed by Judge waiting for a phone call from a studio executive in an effort to get permission to show the interviewer the Idiocracy trailer. Judge bided his time by walking around his neighborhood and watching hunting videos while waiting for the call, but it never came — one more frustration to add to the pile.

“They’re just overthinking it, which is what they always do,” said Judge about the situation. “It’s just about an average dumb-ass person who winds up in the future. It’s not about ‘What if you could travel through time…‘”

The lengthy delays weren’t merely an annoyance that stifled the release of Judge’s film, they also put a hold on his career for a period. “I could have made another movie after I locked the picture before this one comes out,” said Judge, who was described by Esquire as being in a kind of “passive-aggressive funk.”

Though the film never officially screened for critics, those that did see it were quick to recognize its potential. Slate described it as “easily the most potent political film of the year” (a description that has stuck with it for over a decade), and “like all the best dystopian fables, Idiocracy is a scathing indictment of our own society.”

Despite those notices, its lackluster box office performance — less than $500k at the worldwide box office — and quick sprint through theaters signaled almost certain irrelevance. But though Idiocracy failed theatrically, it would somehow flourish in what would be the last days of home video’s monopoly before the digital HD and streaming takeover allowed obscure items a much easier path to discovery. And it’s that sort of old school movement, sparked by “you gotta rent this at Blockbuster” word of mouth, that allowed a cult classic to spring from the ashes.

Finding Its Audience, Eventually

That Idiocracy found an audience on DVD is a triumph that can be measured in dollars and cents. But the how and why it found an audience is much more compelling. That it would find its audience might have been inevitable, given Judge’s reputation and the quality of the film. And even if the studio had misgivings, the excitement of the cast and crew predated its release.

“I cannot f*cking wait for this movie to come out,” said Maya Rudolph (Rita) with a kind of mock frat boy swagger when speaking about her mindset before the film’s release during the Q&A that followed the 10th-anniversary screening. “It’s gonna be the sh*t. We had such a good time making it! ‘Welcome to Costco, I love you,’ like, people are gonna freak out about that!”

Terry Crews (President Camacho) echoed Rudolph’s sentiment at the Q&A, but went on to say that after the film’s release, all he remembered was “curling into a ball for like a month. Literally, I thought that was it.” It wasn’t until he noticed people selling Camacho merchandise on the internet years later that he saw the kind of impact it was having. “There were bumper stickers, and people making their own products! A company even approached me and wanted to do Brawndo,” a move he advised against, explaining that in the movie it “didn’t go well.”

Still, this kind of enthusiasm was proof that a developing fanbase was, little by little, picking up on Judge’s uncanny knack for creating infinitely repeatable catchphrases. From the crude insults of Beavis and Butt-head to the twangy, suburban drawl in King of the Hill and the corporate double-talk of Office Space, Judge has been satirizing, then influencing, the way his audiences talk for the better part of a quarter-century.

When you hear the dialect in Idiocracy, which the film’s narrator describes as “a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang, and various grunts,” it has such a plausible authenticity to it, particularly when spoken by a dull-eyed, slack-jawed population sporting corporate logos on disposable veneer clothing, who view Joe, and his comparatively clean dialect as “pompous and faggy.”

“Mike has an amazing record of creating stuff that sticks in [the] popular imagination,” the film’s screenwriter, Etan Cohen, tells us. “And I was really proud of the movie. But I definitely thought ‘Well, I’m proud of it, but it’s just going to live on in the middle of the night on cable or whatever.'” The movie would eventually make more than $9 million in DVD/Home Video rentals, a huge achievement considering its theatrical fate.

Critic John Patterson predicted the inevitable icon status for the film in a 2006 article for The Guardian. When the film was still in theaters, he wrote that “there’s an audience for this movie, but its natural demographic barely knows it’s out there.” He also lamented the studio’s treatment of Judge, and questioned why the studio would turn its back on the film. “Perhaps because it taps a growing anti-corporate mood in the nation,” he wrote, “perhaps because it expertly satirizes the jingoistic self-absorption that now passes for public culture. Or perhaps because more people are sick of the modern America that Fox energetically helped to build than the Fox corporation itself is ready to admit.”

It’s that last sentiment where Patterson strikes a familiar nerve. While it’s clear that comparisons of the world we live in to Idiocracy have been around as long as the movie itself, it’s hard to ignore how much more pertinent the film seems as more time passes. Fast food restaurants aim for fully-automated restaurants, coffee shops in Switzerland offer up the chance to purchase both coffee and sexual favors, and the GOP nominee for President managed to insult his way to the top of the polls using language that was akin to that of a 4th grader. As Idiocracy‘s reputation as a modern classic was being cemented, it became harder to separate the film from our reality.

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

That blurred line between Idiocracy and reality goes all the way back to when it was being filmed. “I think my first indication that something was going wrong was that our wardrobe person, Debra [McGuire] was talking about shoes,” Judge said at the Q&A. “There were these things called Crocs [that] were just a startup, and she said ‘Look at these.’ I said ‘these are great, this plastic, stupid-looking shoe.’ I said my only fear is, when the movie’s out, everyone’s wearing them, and she said ‘No, no, that’s never gonna happen, no one would ever wear these.’ And of course, when the film eventually came out two years later, Crocs had gone from a small, unknown startup to a massively successful company. So, we were already headed in this direction.”

Since then, everything from school lunch programs to publicity stunts and flavors of chicken wings have been referred to in the press as Idiocracy moments. The multimedia overload on the TV screens of the future is nearly identical to the ones we live with now, whether in our living rooms or in our front pockets. And with each channel in a hunt for ratings, content gets louder, brighter, and simpler, laying traps to capture — and keep — viewers’ attention as long as possible. Any fast food jingle in the past few years seems more and more like it was scooped up from Idiocracy’s cutting room floor. In short, many of Idiocracy’s punchlines have become the norm.

Cohen says that the moment when he realized his co-creation was coming true happened somewhat later. “[It was] sometime during the presidential [primary] debates. I was watching with one of my kids, she’s 12, and she said ‘Maybe we should just have a king.’ Some feeling of things feeling surreal. And not in a fun, trivial way anymore. When we were working on the movie, people used to always send Mike articles about stuff in Idiocracy that was already coming true. But it was fun, inconsequential stuff like everyone wearing Crocs or a topless coffee place. But suddenly it was the U.S. government. That might have been the tipping point. It didn’t seem funny anymore.”

Aware of the developing similarities between the film and the election, Judge, Crews, and Cohen did briefly discuss making ads featuring Camacho, but the idea was quickly dismissed. According to Cohen, “Mike had already been thinking about doing something, so we just started writing up some stuff. It was making us laugh, but the challenge was always that reality seemed to keep beating us to the punchline.”

Even with its many sight gags and goofy characters, it’s impossible to dismiss Idiocracy as just another comedy when you consider its prophetic qualities. Still, just laying out a string of increasingly accurate predictions wouldn’t have allowed the film to endure. For that, we can look to the genuine likability of its characters. From Wilson’s dull-witted straight man to Rudolph’s savvy realist Rita and Dax Shepard’s dead-eyed sidekick Frito, it’s impossible to not root for them — and, by extension, humanity on the whole. Even Crews’ President Camacho, who has ties to everything from pro wrestling to pornography, is a genuinely compassionate leader who’s desperate to solve a global food crisis, even if he doesn’t quite understand it. “Hey, get me a beer. And get you one, too,” he tells Joe at the end of the film, a well-placed reminder that humankind’s loss of intelligence didn’t take its sense of compassion with it, at least not entirely.

It’s one of the rare hopeful touches in a film that’s become uncomfortably accurate in too many respects. While none of us know what the future holds, with luck we won’t be revisiting Idiocracy in another decade and lamenting its upbeat nature and tireless optimism.

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