Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Couple of Surprising Movies

A Couple of Surprising Movies

I caught the latter 2/3 of a made for TV movie called Homeland Security (2004) and the first fifteen minutes of another movie called Idiocracy (2006).

What surprised me about Homeland Security is how positively it presented a fictionalized account of the events immediately after 9/11, the struggles to create the new Homeland Security Department, and the efforts of military and intelligence personnel to do their jobs. The CIA agents and soldiers in Afghanistan are heroic but plausible characters; so are the FBI agents.

At the same time, there are portrayals of some of the real ugliness that took place after 9/11. Muslims are arrested on suspicion of al-Qaeda association who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jailers are portrayed doing what a few actually did--mistreated some of those arrested in the first few days after the attacks, when emotions were running strong. The complexity of trying to figure out what dangers were real, and which what were not, while lacking the clock-ticking excitement of 24, is probably more realistic.

My guess is that Homeland Security was intended as a TV series pilot--which would not be a bad idea, considering what a raging success 24 was in the weeks after 9/11. But I am guessing that by 2004, when this was shown on TV, NBC had already figured out that defeating Bush in the interests of gay marriage and abortion was more important than defeating al-Qaeda.

Idiocracy seems to have enjoyed a very, very short theatrical release. It is obviously based on Cyril Kornbluth's 1951 story "The Marching Morons." In that story, a man from the present (well, actually, 1988) is accidentally put into a state of hibernation. When he comes to, in the distant future, because intelligent people have limited their breeding, and stupid people have not, the average IQ has fallen precipitously--and the relatively small number of really intelligent people are trying to keep the system from collapsing.

Kornbluth's story was a well-done cautionary tale, part of a long tradition of concern about the less capable outbreeding the more capable, in the tradition of Malthus, and late 19th century Social Darwinists. Idiocracy actually opens with considerable potential, as it shows us two couples, the first of which is two standard deviations above the norm discussing on camera why they haven't had kids yet...but they will, real soon. Then we see a below average (in this case, about one standard deviation below the norm) intelligence couple who are like something out of a Jerry Springer television show about trailer trash.

Over the next few years, the smart couple keeps making excuses until their marriage falls apart, and she talks about waiting for the right man to come along. The trailer trash are breeding like cockroaches, with an family tree expanding at a prodigious rate (and sometimes, in ways that remind me of the joke that used to be said about Appalachia, where family trees don't branch).

It's not a fair or accurate portrayal of either; this is a comedy, remember. The fact is that a lot of smart people do actually reproduce, and some reproduce quite effectively! At the same time, there are a lot of people of subnormal intelligence who would be hard to distinguish in their morals or tastes from members from many members of the intellectual elite. You can also find some pretty smart people who are profoundly sleazy.

What makes Idiocracy really quite an inspired piece of work is the clever portrayal of the decline of the intelligence of the human race. The scene where a nurse tries to check Sgt. Bauers in at the hospital will make you think of the cash registers at fast food places. But part of how it shows this decline, which is only subtly implied in Kornbluth's story, is by how it portrays the degradation of the language, entertainment, and moral values of the population. As an example, we see the sign of a Fuddrucker's hamburger chain slowly change its letters over the centuries, to something that rhymes, but I won't repeat, and in fact, even on Comedy Central, they fuzzed out of the second part of the sign. The entertainment of the masses in this idiocratic future is crude and vulgar--but think of the most vulgar movie comedies of today, and then aim them down a bit more, and you get the general idea. It's an accurate extrapolation of where our society seems to be heading--but it is necessarily quite vulgar and crude. Kornbluth's story at least had the advantage that it could tell you without showing you:
A glowing sign said: MOOGS! WOULD YOU BUY IT FOR A QUARTER? He didn't know what Moogs was or were; the illustration showed an incredibly proportioned girl, 99.9 percent naked, writhing passionately in animated full color.
I fear that this comment over at IMDB about the movie might be close to the truth of why the movie didn't last in theaters, in spite of having a moderately well-known star in it, Luke Wilson:
I had a disturbing thought about why this movie might have done so poorly in test audiences. I'm trying to say this in a nice PC way, but ... could it be that a lot of people who saw it in test audiences (and a lot of people who might see it on DVD or cable now) might not find the movie funny and/or don't get it might be - shall we say - like the people in the film?

I don't mean so much that they're necessarily that unintelligent in terms of inherent ability. I'm thinking more that maybe in terms of learned behavior they really are that coarse and that crude. So making fun of that kind of behavior really is not entertainment to them.

Take for example, the scene in the beginning where the narrator says that people think it sounds "faggy" when anyone speaks in proper English. Sad to say, I have come in contact with people who upon hearing that would probably say something like, "Yeah ... of course people who talk like that sound faggy. Where's the joke here?"
A frightening thought: we may already be part of the way to the world of "The Marching Morons"--and Idiocracy could have failed for that reason.

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