Jordan Peele evidently loves his conspiracy lore, so he’ll probably appreciate inevitable theories that his sophomore movie, even with movie and literature antecedents and influences such as The Skeleton Key, C.H.U.D. and Wells’ Morlocks, is an exposé of celebrity cloning antics in underground bases and/or Vrill body snatching, right through to the facilities being shut down.
I mean, he only offers the most ungainly of expository monologues in the latter stages of Us to that essential effect, during which we’re told these subterranean locales have been used in the past for producing soulless clones. It’s very on-the-nose material in that regard; the conspiracy-minded might suggest Peele has purposefully shoehorned his “revelation” into such a lumpen info-dump, one that invites ridicule and profoundly damages the architecture of the movie, in order to exhibit the truth in plain sight.
Unfortunately, Us has little to offer beyond that bizarre, high-concept, retro-fitted premise – at least, the explanation plays as a retro-fitting of whatever more classical doppelgänger trappings he began with – and one has to assume the burden of Peele being perceived overnight as someone who says important things about society led to this bodge up.
Indeed, the movie gets so caught up in its rather banal riff on the concept of “the Other” that it forgets to do anything else plot-wise, quickly settling on having a family face off against its own dark inversion in a series of standard-issue run-and-escape and stand-and-fight set pieces. Substitute zombies for doubles and you pretty much have the thrust of the action beats; everyone (in America) has one, it seems, and they tethered to each other, to the extent that, when their real-world counterparts spawn, so do they…
No, none of it bears up to any kind of scrutiny, such that the instant Peele even had the impulse to try to anchor the proceedings to an attempted coherent, rational, plausible root cause, he was on to a loser. By falling into the trap of over-explaining, he invites over-analysis of the logical howlers infesting every corner of his concept (right down to the matching jumpsuits and scissors provided to the multitudes of Tethered for a very uniformed insurgency).
Peele would have been infinitely better off leaving the whys and wherefores oh-so murky. The direct consequence of his decision is that Us is absent a proper sense of the uncanny beyond the opening scene, with nothing approaching, say, the mirror pull-back in Dust Devil or the primal dread of the moving painting in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Only one of the Tethered has a voice, the subject of a Shyamalan-esque twist that isn’t really very surprising, but more to the point, doesn’t really mean that much; indeed, as twists often do, it throws up its own host of objections once you try to break down its mechanics, and as noted, Peele, by his own self-immolating storytelling choices, very much invites that kind of objection. This lack of voice is also redolent of several latter period zombie movies, making it much easier to hack up most of the monstrous Others with impunity (even if, as with zombie movies, they’re distorted, disfigured reflections of ourselves we’d rather sweep under the carpet).
Oddly, even though Peele ladles on the weird from the start – or perhaps because there’s no sense of normalcy broken – the film is supremely un-scary. About as tense as it gets is the initial arrival of the Tethered outside the Wilson family’s door, but once their reflected selves are gathered for a fireside chat, any real fear factor goes out of the window.
Indeed, when it becomes obvious that Peele isn’t going to mess with his family – their friends the Tylers are contrastingly thoroughly expendable, taken apart with gleeful Good Vibrations – it’s a further suspense-killer, that and his need to doggedly follow horror-rule-book clichés (making starkly stupid choices like going by car rather than boat, and back to the very location that’s so unnerved Lupita Nyong’o’s Adelaide – even or especially with the benefit of the hindsight of who she really is).
Being a horror movie that knows it’s a horror movie, instead of killing the group without pause to shoot the shit as the doubles do with the Tylers, there’s prevarication/revealing of motivation and an obliging count-to-ten scenario before getting nasty, none of which exactly feeds into the fear factor. Indeed, the pacing of the picture rather induces, if not quite boredom, then certainly restlessness; as an essentially plot-lite tale, this could have done with being a brisk ninety minutes, maybe even pared down to the length one of Peele’s new Twilight Zone episodes.
The exposition scenes are symptomatic of hand-holding evident from the off; we’re told it’s 1986 via a (for Adelaide, profoundly influential) TV advert, but Peele doesn’t trust his audience to realise this, so in the very next scene, offers an onscreen subtitle telling us the year and then has young Adelaide bought a Thriller t-shirt, just to underline the cultural epoch.
The ensuing hall of mirrors scene is as creepy as Us gets, and it’s mostly downhill from there. Just about everything that doesn’t get under the skin here did in Karyn Kusama’s far superior The Invitation a few years back, where the familiar setting of the home and old friends was dramatically subverted and put frantically under threat, ultimately feeding in to a similar apocalyptic vision; that film was tense and relentless, though, and didn’t feel like it was looking for subtextual interpretation to justify itself.
There are some good performances here, Nyong’o in particular, and the kids (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex), although Winston Duke suffers somewhat with the hubby’s resolute recourse to mundane thinking and the need to serve as comic relief. On the one hand, Peele is taking his picture deadly seriously. On the other, he is dropping in Home Alone references and conversations about who deserves the most credit for the highest kill count. It’s a jarring recourse to the wink-wink, and doesn’t gel in the way, say, Sam Raimi mixes laughs and scares.
Mostly, though, Us simply fails to find its feet. Peele seems to be caught in a trap of expectation, after Get Out, that he will deliver both high concept and political context, but he rather fizzles with both here. He might have embraced his cloning conspiracy theme wholeheartedly but seems content to leave it flailing in rather inert and ungainly fashion, instead remixing old standards, of going down the rabbit hole and, as noted, fear of the Other (on the conspiracy front, Us also takes in the synchronicity favourite 11:11; which came first, the 11:11 or the Jeremiah verse? I suspect the former, and that his research assistant was required to trawl through the scriptures until she found a vaguely fitting passage. Then there’s fluoride in our drinking water, and the documented proliferation of underground bases).
As a result, various readings that may all be entirely valid hold little interest. One can go the Jungian route, or read into the Tethered versions of how the Other see us. Or they’re the down-trodden and neglected underclass: “We’re Americans” too. Or is Us a parable for closing ourselves off from the world/reality? Adelaide falls victim when she is drawn to a funfair and robed in the devious merchandising of a hugely influential, generation-polarising alleged paedophile.
Technology actively assists – and mocks in its choice of song to accompany our deaths – in the destruction of those who have retreated into self-contained worlds; those not plugged in (the Thomases are Wi-Fi free on holiday) stand more of a chance. And, if we succumb, we’re left as burn-out hive-mind husks, doing what we’re told, lacking even a voice.
Then there’s the older generation’s obliviousness to the more alert younger’s warnings of catastrophe (fluoride as mind control), the latter being the ones who know who they really are. Most interesting, but not developed, are the guttural animalistic noises our heroes make as they experience the bloodlust of fighting back, suggesting they may be becoming the Tethered as they act more like them.
Does the twist retrospectively make Us more intriguing, inviting a desire to revisit it from the real Red’s point of view? No, not really. The picture would have needed to grip in the first place to have a hope of achieving that. The worrying takeaway is that Peele may be no more than the next M Night Shyamalan, following his debut with a much-anticipated movie that opens successfully before quickly stiffing when word gets out (this remains to be seen). But Us is worse; it’s closer to The Village, one of Night’s a few movies down the line, than it is the quite admirable Unbreakable. It’s symptomatic of a director believing their own hype and ending up looking unflatteringly like they’re suffering a major attack of the emperor’s new clothes.