Satirical Science Fiction

 

 

Vs.

 

 

I’d say I’m overdue to get a series started up again by now, so here’s a new direction that hopefully gets more to the point on cult movies: How do they hold up against movies in general? Is theirs an approach that deserves more recognition, or are they left out of the spotlight so often for a reason? For now, we’ll be following two rules: the movies compared must be in the same genre, and they need to be from about the same era (released roughly within the same decade).

 

First up on the schedule is a match between two satirical science fiction movies, one a modest hit adapted from a popular novel and one an undersold creation of the one and only Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-head.

 

 

Idiocracy:

 

There’s a scene in Idiocracy in which the newly elected president addresses his citizens, knowing full well that his IQ is multiple times above the national average of 20. Having mastered public speaking of the modern times, he gets them psyched for the return of an era in which reading wasn’t “just for fags” and movies were written with stories that enabled you to care about “whose ass it was and why it was farting.” The crowd cheers and chants his name as he performs the nation’s signature salute, holding up his middle fingers proudly (and cathartically, I’m willing to bet).

 

This is a pretty apt summary Mike Judge’s work. His trademark show about two degenerate couch potatoes mocks its protagonists without quite siding against them, as though he thinks they’re just inevitable. It’s often enjoyed by the very people it satirizes. Judge has scorned everything from disaffected teenagers to the society that’s supposed to be setting them straight, rarely portraying anyone as even a little bit sympathetic. He’s downright cynical, towards cynicism itself more than anything, so there’s usually something there for everybody.

 

This holds true in Idiocracy, the story of two average people (Luke Wilson and Maya Rudolph) transported 500 years into the future, where natural selection has come to favor the idiots who didn’t mind mating irresponsibly with each other as often as possible. The two find themselves in predicament after predicament in a society falling to pieces, and most of them are funny enough, though as a whole, it suggests this story might have been better off as a TV show. Both characters do get something of an arc, but with a narrator bridging, or sometimes abridging scenes, our investment in them is limited.

 

Instead, the real appeal here is exploring the dystopian world with Wilson and watching him try to work with the obnoxious knuckleheads taking care of it. As it turns out, the computers created by their ancestors are all that keeps anything organized, but the people are still left to make the immediate decisions dictating each other’s fate. Trials are won by whichever side can best insult the other (and if you dare appeal to the crowd’s sense of mercy or empathy, they’ll drop your case right away for talking “like a fag” ), politicians are more like professional wrestlers, and the people spend most of their time watching the show Ow! My Balls! And as the smartest man in the world, Wilson wields a double edged sword: It’s all too easy for him to rise to the top, but he’s also the one the people are most eager to throw back down to the bottom. His intelligence may be useful to them (usually in ways they don’t actually realize), but it’s not something they admire or respect. It doesn’t take long for them to feel like he’s wasting their time.

 

Idiocracy is a strong and funny statement from Judge, and the sheer memorability of some of its scenes makes the movie worth it. (Add on extra points for the jab at how a certain brand of neon-colored sugar water could be seen as a routinely better, healthier option than water because “It’s got electrolytes!” ) Still, there comes a point at which you really are just flipping the bird back the offender.

 

 

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

 

We are not alone. Mankind is not the smartest being in the universe. In fact, we’re not even the smartest species in the world. The dolphins, for one, saw the trouble from a distant planet coming, and they attempted to warn us before giving up and departing. But there’s something even smarter lurking on earth with a scheme that goes deeper than any of us can imagine.

 

But as it turns out, the point of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t really its plot. Different threads come in and out of the story, tying into the misadventures of our protagonists just well enough to convince us they should be there, but they’re really only markers between points. Hitchhiker’s is not a sci-fi thriller, not even to the extent that Spaceballs was. It’s a road movie of sorts, with the heroes travelling from planet to planet, bonding, and learning their life lessons. But the endpoint isn’t even known until the movie’s almost over, and even then, it’s not really imperative that they go there. Maybe the message is that an endpoint, regardless of greatness or finality, is a silly idea when you have a whole universe to explore.

 

Hitchhiker’s is the story of Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman), who begins the story lying down in front of a bulldozer to stop a construction crew from demolishing his house, despite their claim that their plans have been on public display for a year. But he’s made to stand aside by his friend Ford Perfect (Mos Def), who tells him the world is about to be destroyed, and they need to hitch a ride. He transports both of them off the planet just before the arrival of the Vogons, a race of sniffling, business-oriented slugs ruled by routine and procedure, who announce that the plans to renovate earth were posted 50 years in advance, and now it’s time to start.

 

Through a zany turn of events, the two end up on the same ship as Tricia Mcmillan (Zooey Deschanel), the girl whose heart Arthur almost won at a party, before his lack of spontaneity made her opt for President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), eloping his duties as president of the galaxy to attend the party. Joined by Marvin (Alan Rickman), the first robot designed to have a man’s personality (manic depression), they strap into President Zaphod’s ship and set out on an adventure, fleeing the Vogons, visiting Zaphod’s opponent in the last election – whom Zaphod wants to settle with for calling him stupid – and finding a conspiracy involving a supercomputer’s failure to determine the answer to life, as finding the answer still left the question that particular number solves.

 

Most of the humor comes from viewing each alien races’ attempts to reconcile the same religious, political, and social dilemmas that we ponder every day, which can be very funny and pretty good satire. But there’s also a sense that the translation from book to movie might sometimes have been a little too word-for-word. Some lines sound like attempts to pick apart at least one of the above, but instead of a punchline, we end up with barely a hint at what they’re getting at. It reminded me of when my geekier friends would deconstruct an idea just for the fun of seeing how silly their own tangents could become. But then, who am I to judge? I was joining in as often as not. There’s a reassuring bond in the notion that we all think outside the box like so, which might explain the novel’s strong cult following – not that it’s lacking in literary merits.

 

It’s been a divisive movie for both fans of the book and the general audience, but in the end, I enjoyed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The tone is good-natured, easygoing, and moderately funny, the special effects are entertaining, and the actors all bring their own charm to their performances. At times, you might be tempted to tell the movie that it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, but that’s not really necessary. After all, it knew the same was true for us, but it opted to bring joy instead of getting in our faces about it.

 

 

 

The Better Movie

 

Idiocracy –

Pros:

– Satire is more focused and harder hitting

– More memorable scenes

 

Cons:

– Small budget

– Main character’s arc is not as important

– Comedic characters become annoying. (The foremost concern is making us side against them.)

 

 

 

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy –

Pros:

– Comedy is lighter and more spontaneous

– Much better special effects

– Sweeter and stronger love story at the center

 

Cons:

– More fanciful

– Might be geared towards fans of the novel more than a general audience

– Satire can be unfocused

 

I’ll give Idiocracy credit as the movie more people can probably agree on, but in the end, a movie, an entire runtime, needs a story driving it or at least a point to build towards. The difference in quality between these two can be glimpsed in their respective narrators. Both explain points in question, but in Idiocracy, it’s often a shortcut for showing us the rest of a scene, while in Hitchhiker’s, it’s used to expand the jokes and add to the exploration of space as seen by the main characters. The latter clearly had as much investment in its tale as it did in its jabs at society (almost as much, anyway), and the bigger budget to spend on cast, crew, and special effects helps as well. Though it’s proven to be a polarizing movie, Hitchhiker’s is breezier and more enthusiastic, and if you like it at all, you’ll probably like it more than Idiocracy.

 

 

 

Final scores

Idocracy: 6.5/10

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: 7/10

 

 

 

Winner:

 

 

So, in a surprising non-upset, “mainstream” takes round 1. It seems there is something to be said for the interest a film can generate and the money that the creators are able to put into the project. As usual, the suggestion box is open, so feel free to request a match for later down the line.

 

 

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