Idiocracy First Impression

20th Century Fox seems to be giving a stealth release to IDIOCRACY, the new sci-fi comedy from Mike Judge (who made his name with MTV's BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD before writing and directing the excellent corporate comedy OFFICE SPACE).

IDIOCRACY, which is about a guy who ends up five hundred years in the future after a hibernation experiment goes wrong, opened in a handful of theatres today in Los Angeles, without benefit of advertising or promotion. The film sports a 2005 copyright, which suggests it has been sitting on the shelf for nearly a year, until Fox could dump it unceremoniously. There is some kind of "additional editing" credit at the end, which further suggests that extra editing took place to try to fix the film in post-production. The movie also has a voice-over narration that explains much of the story, so my guess (without any first-hand knowledge) is that the running time was shortened to speed up the pace, and the narration added to fill in the gaps.

All of this may lead you to expect that the film would turn out to be an overdone turkey, but it is actually quite funny. The basic premise is that smart people are thinking long and hard about the responsiblities of parenthood and, consequently, are having fewer children, while stupid people are procreating like mad, which leads to a future world in which everyone operates at the intellectual level of Beavis and Butt-Head.

Luke Wilson stars as the ordinary guy who wakes up in this dead-head future, where his modest intelligence makes him seem like a genius. The problem is that these morons dismiss his relatively fancy talk is faggy because it exceeds their intellectual capacity.

The premise is a tiny bit like Woody Allen's SLEEPER (e.g., a guy coming out of hibernation in the future), but the vision of the future is quite different. Instead of some version of an Orwellian fascist state, this is one where things only barely continue to operate because most of the machinery is automated to the point that the humans don't have to do much.

The movie feels a bit like a '70s exploitation film, where they had little money to create a believable future, so they tried to conceive it on the cheap, relying on backlots and cheap-looking props to suggest a run-down world. The difference is that in the 1970s, it would have been a post-apocalyptic wasteland a ruined city, with a handful of static matte paintings to depict ruined buildings in the background; now we get CGI shots that are more mobile but no more convincing.

Overall, the satire is not quite barbed as it could be. The movie cleverly suggests a future that is recognizably built upon the cultural trash we see all around us today - like schlocky television entertainment and air-head news (Fox Channel comes gets a big whack up the side of the head). But the target mostly seems to be trailer trash - it's as if people who love World of Wrestling now run the world.

This just feels like shooting a sitting duck. When Luke Wilson's simple, logical explanations to solve the world's problems fall on deaf, Judge seems to be holding a mirror up to the current political situation, where intelligent candidates and politicians like Al Gore and John Kerry are dmissed as eggheads, while aggressively - and proudly - ignorant ones like George Bush are embraced as being readl down-to-earth people. But Judge never drives the point home; he just leaves it dangling there for you to make the connection if you want to. The best satire is not so tepid and wary of offending; satire should slice like a rapier, unafraid of hitting its target.

This timidity makes IDIOCRACY feel a bit more like a juvenile joke - funny but not quite as sharp as it should be. And some of the scenes fall flat; it's as if the concept were good, but Judge didn't quite have the chops as a director to pull it all off - maybe the futuristic stuff was just a bit too much for him? Still, the laughs quotient is more than enough to make this worthwhile viewing.

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