Which is scarier: being terrorized by someone who is both smart and evil, or by an entire society that’s stupid beyond belief? I got to compare and contrast yesterday when I saw the creepy, beautiful, tragic Pan’s Labyrinth in the movie theater, then came home and watched Mike Judge’s intentionally ugly, dark-edged satire Idiocracy. I know, I know, get a life.
The films have a surprising amount in common despite their surface dissimilarities: they both dissect how oppression works and find its chief enabler in blind, mind-numbed obedience to authority figures. The difference is that in Labyrinth, the authority figure is cursed/blessed with an awareness that he is indeed evil. In Idiocracy, the violent goons who run things don’t even know there’s anything wrong. Draw your own parallels to today’s leaders.
Pan’s Labyrinth, from writer/director Guillermo del Toro, sets its story in the 1940s when Franco’s fascists were consolidating their control over Spain but still had to root out Republican and Communist guerrilla fighters opposed to their regime. That’s what’s happening in the “real” world. In a parallel fairy-tale world that comes to seem just as real, a princess seeks to take back her birthright by performing three increasingly difficult tasks.
The princess is menaced by creatures out of del Toro’s and our nightmares. The most unsettling is a baggy-skinned, bony thing whose sharp fingers are stained with the blood of the children he’s gored. His removable eyeballs go not in his head but in the palms of his hands – the better to see around corners, I guess. The princess is cajoled along on these quests by a lively, yet tree-like faun (Doug Jones) who is more ugly/beautiful than any Narnia faun and who may be up to no good.
The link between the two worlds is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), the 10-year-old stepdaughter of the particularly vicious fascist, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Ofelia’s timid mother Carmen, many months pregnant with Vidal’s son, has traveled with the captain and his men to a remote country mill near a guerrilla stronghold.
The housekeeper, Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) is playing a dangerous game, spying on the captain and smuggling food and medicine to the resistance fighters. It takes Vidal a while to suspect Mercedes because, vain chauvinistic peacock that he is, he can’t quite get his head around the idea that a woman is smarter and possibly as dangerous as he is – and he is dangerous.
Vidal is a murderer and torturer who is all the scarier for seeming so reasonable, even offhanded, about the violence he causes. He has totally cowed his wife Carmen, who in his mind is little more than a disposable life support system for his son and heir. Fortunately Ofelia, with her connections to the natural/magical forest around the old mill, finds the strength to resist Vidal’s monstrousness without herself becoming a monster.
Del Toro shows the same filmmaking skills that have defined both his most personal work (The Devil’s Backbone) and his more Hollywood efforts (Mimic and Hellboy, among others). His command of color, bathing the “real” world in cool blues and greens but making parts of the fairy-tale world rich with reds and purples, is impressive (credit also cinematographer Guillermo Navarro).
The music, by Javier Navarrete, also does a lot to make the two worlds separate yet equal. Del Toro has done wonders with his actors, particularly Baquero and Verdu, two brave women who look fear in the face while letting us know how difficult it is to do so.
The film’s messages — that fighting evil often demands sacrifice, and that we subvert the natural world at our own peril — are worthy, but in some ways beside the point. The strength of Pan’s Labyrinth is that its imagery has the capacity to get behind your eyeballs and into your head. We may not care about 60-year-old battles between Franco and his enemies, but we care that this princess is willing to give up her kingdom for the sake of an innocent child.
Idiocracy looks forward instead of back, deep-freezing two average humans (army private Luke Wilson and hooker Maya Rudolph) for 500 years. They awake into a world where natural selection has been swamped by a reproductive tidal wave of mouth-breathers and crotch-grabbers, addicted to ever-more-violent television and “educated” by corporate slogans and mindless consumerism.
This is either a Blue State liberal’s nightmare vision of flyover country, or a parody of same. With director/co-writer Mike Judge (Office Space, “Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill,”), you’re never quite sure (Judge collaborated on the screenplay with Etan Cohen).
In any case, Wilson and Rudolph, simply smart enough to tie their shoes in 2005, are Wile E. Coyote Super Geniuses in the 26th century. However, like the cartoon predator, they are more likely to fall into canyons and get blown up by Acme Products than their unthinking tormentors. Intelligence, even average intelligence, is no match for stupidity, especially when it has become so rampant that it’s celebrated rather than shunned. Anyone who talks in actual English sentences, as Wilson and Rudolph do, is automatically assumed to be a pretentious “fag.” The soft bigotry of low expectations indeed!
The film is (intentionally) ugly and crude: the most popular TV show on The Violence Channel is called “Ow! My Balls!” and yes, it consists of a guy doing repeated damage to his nuts. Judge is an equal-opportunity offender: corporate greed turns out to be behind the crop failures and dust bowls that are ravaging the planet, because farmers are irrigating their crops with a Gatorade-like substance rather than water.
Why is the liquid so popular? Its manufacturer had the foresight to buy both the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission in the 2300s, and now everyone is convinced that the substance is “what plants crave,” when in actuality it’s killing them along with all other life on the planet.
In a case of life imitating satirical art, Idiocracy, which was in theaters very briefly last year and is already out on DVD, was a box-office failure. Its distributor, Twentieth-Century Fox, gave it almost no marketing support. Either the studio’s suits are emissaries from the idiotic future, or they are smarter than they seem. They may have realized that Idiocracy’s satire is so unrelenting that it may be too much of a good thing: smart people won’t like to be reminded that they live in a world where they’re a shrinking minority, and stupid people are likely to feel insulted.
Judge predicts that the Fox News Channel is still going strong in 2505, providing the same unbiased reporting and respect for facts that it always has – another nail in the film’s corporate coffin.
Fortunately, Idiocracy is likely to have the same fate as Judge’s 1999 Office Space, a brilliant satire of corporate life that has become a cult classic. All the performers (many of whom were in the earlier film) are pitch-perfect at playing idiots, slobs, droolers, nose-pickers, pumped-up bullies, and consumerist drones.
So which is scarier? Pan’s Labyrinth is a creepier film. Idiocracy is a stealth bomb of subversive ideas.
Both are likely to give you nightmares.