Watching Mike Judge's Idiocracy, which finally hit the shelves this week on DVD, I couldn't help noticing its uncanny resemblance to Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. Sure, Idiocracy is a low comedy, full of kicks to the groin and monster-truck rallies, while Children of Men is a serious dramatic thriller about the extinction of humanity. But both movies are chilling visions of a future dystopia extrapolated, with pitiless logic, from our current moment. Both feature a reluctant hero (Clive Owen in Children of Men, Luke Wilson in Idiocracy) who's jolted from his depressive complacency and asked to save the planet from destruction. And both posit human reproduction (or the lack of it) as the problem that threatens the future of the human race.
One other commonality: Both movies were scandalously underpromoted by the studios releasing them. Judge's film sat on a shelf for two years at Fox before being hacked down to its current 84-minute running time and dumped, unadvertised, into only a few cities on the slowest movie weekend of the year. Children of Men's fate has been slightly less ignominious; it was released nationwide, largely untrumpeted, on Christmas Day, and only this week, after countless critics (including me) put the movie on their 10-best lists, has Universal rushed to mount a too-little-too-late push for Oscar consideration.
The burial of Children of Men was lame, but comprehensible. Figuring that few viewers would flock to such an unremitting downer of a film, Universal must have decided to market the movie modestly, hoping at least to break even with attention from art-house audiences. But Fox's choice to withhold Idiocracy even from the markets where it was most likely to find cult viewers—New York? San Francisco?—and to eschew all advertising is simply bewildering. The shrouding of Idiocracy in what amounts to a marketing burqa is especially ironic given that the film's most pointed satire is aimed at the ubiquity of advertising in American life.
Since Idiocracy was reviewed in Slateduring its sort-of-release in September, I'll keep the plot summary minimal here: After being cryogenically frozen for an Army experiment, Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) sleeps for five centuries. He wakes up in the Great Garbage Avalanche of 2505, when his hibernation pod crashes into the living room of one Frito Lexus (Dax Shepard), a barely functioning life form who spends his days watching a TV show called Ow, My Balls!
After centuries of mental devolution caused by the overbreeding of dumbasses (more on that later), average Joe has become, by default, the brainiest person on earth. He's recruited as the secretary of the interior, but his attempts to persuade the citizens of "Uh-merica" to irrigate their crops with water instead of a bright-green sports drink called Brawndo result in his near-execution at a gladiatorial event known as Monday Night Rehabilitation. At the last minute, though, Joe is saved by his fellow cryogenic freeze-ee, a shrewd prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph), with whom he goes on to procreate, hence raising the global I.Q. for future generations.
Where Judge's project meets up, improbably, with Cuarón's—and what makes Idiocracy so successful as satire, even if it occasionally flounders as a coherently told story—is in the two directors' visions of the endgame of our culture, the decline of capitalistic democracy as we know it. Cuarón takes our current obsession with "homeland security" to its nightmarishly logical conclusion by imagining a world that's nothing but borders and checkpoints, government propaganda, and caged refugees. Judge focuses more on the capitalism side of the equation. The film's best jokes—and Idiocracy is a very joke-dense film—trace the steady and inexorable crassification of the cultural landscape into a future where the Fuddrucker's hamburger chain has become "Buttf***er's" and Starbucks offers hand jobs along with its lattes. Nike's slogan is "Don't Do a Thing" and Carl's Jr.'s is "F**k You, I'm Eating." Slot machines in hospital waiting rooms promise a shot at free health care, and language has devolved into a mixture of "hillbilly, Valley Girl, inner-city slang, and various grunts."
Both directors use the details of production design brilliantly to show us, rather than tell us, how their respective dystopias function. A TV in the background of Clive Owen's apartment in Children of Men advertises a product called "Quietus" … and we realize the government is providing suicide kits for its citizens. Character after character in Idiocracy sports the same shiny T-shirt covered in product logos … and we understand that a few corporations have taken over the world with the willing cooperation of sheeplike consumers. Cuarón's and Judge's future cities (London and Washington, D.C.) even look a little alike, with heaps of garbage rotting in the street and peeling slogans plastered on crumbling walls, and both directors share a marked disinterest in technological gadgetry, usually a mainstay of futuristic fantasy.
Ultimately, Children of Men's vision of the future is more inclusive, and kinder, than Idiocracy's. Judge's gimlet eye is so ruthless that at times his politics seem to border on South Park libertarianism—a philosophy that, as has often been observed about South Park, can flirt with the reactionary. And there's more than a little classism in Idiocracy's fear that the dumb—here pictured as trailer-park trash and fast-food-swilling losers—will inherit the earth. Would we be better off in a world in which the brittle, infertile yuppies shown in the movie's opening moments had populated the earth with their spawn?
More to the point, Children of Men is a beautifully crafted work of art, arguably a masterpiece, while Idiocracy is a shambling cult comedy, by turns genius and jury-rigged. But is it paranoid to wonder why the two most underappreciated films of 2006 also happen to be the two that ask us to peer deep into the mirror and contemplate our future?