The film was not screened for critics and distributor 20th Century Fox was accused of abandoning the film. Despite its lack of a major theatrical release, which resulted in a mere $495,303 box office, the film received generally positive reviews from critics and has become a cult film.
A United States Army librarian, Corporal "Average Joe" Bauers, is selected for a suspended animation experiment on grounds of average appearance, intelligence, behavior, etc. Lacking a suitable female candidate, they hire Rita, a prostitute whose pimp "Upgrayedd" has been bribed to allow her to take part. The experiment is forgotten when the officer in charge is arrested for having started his own prostitution ring under Upgrayedd's tutelage. Five hundred years later, Joe and Rita's suspension chambers are unearthed by the collapse of a mountain-sized garbage pile, and Joe's suspension chamber crashes into the apartment of Frito Pendejo, who expels him.
The former Washington, D.C. has lost most of its infrastructure, with people living in plastic huts called "domistiles". The human population has become morbidly stupid, speaks only low registers of English competently, is profoundly anti-intellectual, and individuals are named after corporate products. Suspecting hallucination, Joe enters a hospital, where he is incompetently diagnosed, and comes to realize what has happened to him and to society. He is arrested for not having a bar code tattoo to pay for his doctor's appointment, and after being assigned the grossly incompetent Frito as his lawyer, he is sent to prison. Rita returns to her former profession.
Joe is renamed "Not Sure" by a faulty tattooing machine, and takes an IQ test before tricking the guards into letting him escape. Once free, Joe asks Frito whether a time machine exists to return him to 2005, and bribes him with promises of riches through compound interest on a bank account Joe will open in the 21st century. Frito knows of one, and leads him with Rita to a gigantic Costco store, where a tattoo scanner identifies Joe. He is apprehended, but is taken to the White House, where he is appointed Secretary of the Interior, on the grounds that his IQ test identified him as the most intelligent person alive.
In a speech, President Camacho gives Joe the impossible job of fixing the nation's food shortages, Dust Bowls, and crippled economy within a week. Joe discovers that the nation's crops are irrigated with a sports drink named "Brawndo", whose parent corporation had purchased the FDA, FCC, and USDA. When Joe has the drink replaced with water, Brawndo's stock drops to zero, and half of the population lose their jobs, causing mass riots. Joe is sentenced to die in a monster truck demolition derby featuring undefeated "Rehabilitation Officer" Beef Supreme.
Frito and Rita discover that Joe's reintroduction of water to the soil has prompted vegetation to grow in the fields. During the televised event they show the sprouting crops on the stadium's display screen, and Camacho gives Joe a full pardon, appointing him Vice President. Joe and Rita find that the "time masheen" Frito had mentioned is merely an inaccurate, history-themed amusement ride. Following Camacho's term, Joe is elected President. Joe and Rita marry and conceive the world's three smartest children, while Vice President Frito takes eight wives and fathers 32 of the world's stupidest children.
The idea of a dystopian society based on dysgenics is not new. H. G. Wells' The Time Machine postulates a devolved society of humans, as does the short story "The Marching Morons" by Cyril M. Kornbluth, akin to the "Epsilon-minus Semi-Morons" of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
During the 2016 presidential primaries, writer Etan Cohen and others expressed opinions that the film's predictions were converging on accuracy, which, during the general election, director Mike Judge also said. At the time, Judge also compared Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump—who later won and became President of the United States—to the movie's dim-witted wrestler-turned-president, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. When asked about predicting the future, he remarked, "I'm no prophet, I was off by 490 years."
Early working titles included The United States of Uhh-merica and 3001. Filming took place in 2004 on several stages at Austin Studios and in the cities of Austin, San Marcos, Pflugerville, and Round Rock, Texas.
Test screenings around March 2005 produced unofficial reports of poor audience reactions. After some re-shooting in the summer of 2005, a UK test screening in August produced a report of a positive impression.
Idiocracy's original release date was August 5, 2005, according to Mike Judge. In April 2006, a release date was set for September 1, 2006. In August, numerous articles revealed that release was to be put on hold indefinitely. Idiocracy was released as scheduled but only in seven cities (Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, and Mike Judge's hometown, Austin, Texas), and expanded to only 130 theaters, not the usual wide release of 600 or more theaters. According to the Austin American-Statesman, 20th Century Fox, the film's distributor, was entirely absent in promoting the feature; while posters were released to theatres, "no movie trailers, no ads, and only two stills," and no press kits were released.
The film was not screened for critics. Lack of concrete information from Fox led to speculation that the distributor may have actively tried to keep the film from being seen by a large audience, while fulfilling a contractual obligation for theatrical release ahead of a DVD release, according to Ryan Pearson of the AP. That speculation was followed by open criticism of the studio's lack of support from Ain't It Cool News, Time, and Esquire. Time's Joel Stein wrote "the film's ads and trailers tested atrociously", but, "still, abandoning Idiocracy seems particularly unjust, since Judge has made a lot of money for Fox."
In The New York Times, Dan Mitchell argued that Fox might be shying away from the cautionary tale about low-intelligence dysgenics, because the company did not want to offend either its viewers or potential advertisers portrayed negatively in the film. In 2017, Judge told The New York Times that the film's lack of marketing and wide release was the result of negative test screenings. He added that Fox subsequently decided to not give the film a strong marketing push because the distributor believed it would develop a cult following through word-of-mouth and recoup its budget through home video sales, as Judge's previous film Office Space had.
Box office receipts totaled $444,093 in the U.S., with the widest release being 135 theaters.
Although it was not screened in advance for critics, Idiocracy received positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 74% approval rating, based on 43 reviews, with an average rating of 6.5/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Idiocracy delivers the hilarity and biting satire that could only come from Mike Judge". On Metacritic, the film has a score of 66 out of 100, based on 12 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Los Angeles Times reviewer Carina Chocano described it as "spot on" satire and a "pitch-black, bleakly hilarious vision of an American future", although the "plot, naturally, is silly and not exactly bound by logic. But it's Judge's gimlet-eyed knack for nightmarish extrapolation that makes Idiocracy a cathartic delight." In an in Entertainment Weekly review only 87 words long, Joshua Rich gave the film an "EW Grade" of "D", stating that "Mike Judge implores us to reflect on a future in which Britney and K-Fed are like the new Adam and Eve." The A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin found Luke Wilson "perfectly cast ... as a quintessential everyman"; and wrote of the film: "Like so much superior science fiction, Idiocracy uses a fantastical future to comment on a present. ... There's a good chance that Judge's smartly lowbrow Idiocracy will be mistaken for what it's satirizing."
The film was also well received in other countries. John Patterson, critic for UK newspaper The Guardian, wrote, "Idiocracy isn't a masterpiece—Fox seems to have stiffed Judge on money at every stage—but it's endlessly funny", and of the film's popularity, described seeing the film "in a half-empty house. Two days later, same place, same show—packed-out." Brazilian news magazine Veja called the film "politically incorrect", recommended that readers see the DVD, and wrote "the film went flying through [American] theaters and did not open in Brazil. Proof that the future contemplated by Judge is not that far away."
Critic Alexandre Koball of the Brazilian website CinePlayers.com, while giving the movie a score of 5/5 along with another staff reviewer, wrote, "Idiocracy is not exactly ... funny nor ... innovative but it's a movie to make you think, even if for five minutes. And for that it manages to stay one level above the terrible average of comedy movies released in the last years in the United States."
Salon writer Adam Johnson accused the film of supporting eugenics, saying, "While the movie is savvy enough to avoid overt racism, it dives head first into gross classism."
Idiocracy was released on DVD on January 9, 2007. It has earned $9 million on DVD rentals, over 20 times its gross domestic box office revenue of under $450,000.
In the United Kingdom, uncut versions of the film were shown on satellite channel Sky Comedy on February 26, 2009, with the Freeview premiere shown on Film4 on April 26, 2009.
In August 2012, Crews said he was in talks with director Judge and Fox over a possible Idiocracy spin-off featuring his President Camacho character, initially conceived as a web series. A week before the 2012 elections, he reprised the character in a series of shorts for website Funny or Die. In June 2016, before the presidential election in November, Rolling Stone published an article stating that Judge and Cohen would produce Idiocracy themed campaign advertisements opposing Donald Trump's presidential campaign if given permission from Fox to do so. However, it was later reported by Business Insider that the ads would not go forward as planned.