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Us ••••

Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Horror/Thriller, Rated: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Date: March 22, 2019


(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, is this next movie, Us, about the United States?

No, it’s about Us at the movies. But seriously, it’s the latest dark work from Jordan Peele. Let’s recap:

We meet Adelaide (Madison Curry), a young girl at an amusement park with her parents in Santa Cruz, California in 1986. She gets separated from her parents and wanders into a funhouse with mirrors. There she encounters a creepy doppelganger of herself. We then switch to the present day, and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now a mother with two kids and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke). They decide to vacation in Santa Cruz, which disturbs Adelaide but she goes anyway. They rent a nice house, but one night they are visited by a family standing in their driveway.

Gabe tries to scare the family way only to realize they are doppelgangers of him and his family. They aren’t alone – it turns out everyone in America is under siege from red jumpsuited, scissor-wielding duplicates who are hell-bent on replacing their originals. Now it’s every man, woman, and child for themselves as it’s replicant vs. original.

Greg, it’s pretty clear that Jordan Peele is on a roll. His Oscar-nominated film Get Out made a big splash two years ago, and now he is producing the new Twilight Zone series debuting this coming week. His latest film, Us, has a definite, creepy Twilight Zone feel to it. I wouldn’t say I was bowled over by Us, as the idea of people having evil doppelgangers is not a new sci-fi premise at all. But I did appreciate the hidden depth of Us. These evil doppelgangers have a past and a purpose that should make all of us pause and ponder. I’m still trying figure it all out myself.

Our main hero, Adelaide, ventures into a funhouse of mirrors, and not coincidentally the building is called Find Yourself. There are layers of complexity here, because Adelaide doesn’t just find herself; she finds a version of herself that she doesn’t even know exists. The fact that these doppelgangers live underground is symbolic of the side to ourselves that lurks beneath our level of awareness, which Freud termed “the unconscious”. The doppelgangers appear to have been created by the government as a way to control us, but the experiment went awry until Red and Adelaide switched places in 1986. Red somehow mobilized the doppelgangers, although I’m not sure why this mobilization required Adelaide’s return to Santa Cruz 33 years later.

So there’s a lot more going on here than a simple story about our bloodthirsty twins killing us all and taking our place. I suspect that Peele is going for some serious social commentary about why mainstream can’t achieve a “hands across America” from coast-to-coast whereas an oppressed, buried, and forgotten segment of society can. I admit that I need a second viewing of this film to try to piece it all together, but it’s entirely possible that I’ve got all the pieces and they’re not supposed to fit all neatly together. Perhaps this is why Us deserves the highest of praise – it’s a silly scary movie on one level and yet on another level, it’s making my brain hurt trying to figure it all out.

You’re right that this is reminiscent of other science fiction themes. The classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers and more recently Stranger Things (which also includes an ‘upside down’ underworld) come to mind. I didn’t spend much time trying to understand the logic of this film. Much as the logic behind Night of the Living Dead isn’t important to the idea of the undead trying to kill off the living.

One irritating aspect of this film, though, is the incessant exposition. Red spends a full five minutes explaining in a raspy voice about her life, family and ascension to take the place of Adelaide’s family. Then again, there’s a final ‘villain monologue’ explaining how the underworld of tunnels came to be. Frankly, I could barely make sense of this ‘government experiment’ and how it was supposed to work.

I also had to ‘turn off my brain’ as you’re so fond of saying, Scott. As with the underworld of Stranger Things if you scratch too deeply beyond the surface, the premise starts to fall apart. We see scenes of the doppelgangers in tunnels acting like their surface-level counterparts. But how do these “people” eat, drink, and otherwise exist? Do they have factories that produce the clothes they wear? Do they work in those factories? Are there doppelgangers in China? Is there a doppelganger Pacific Ocean that has doppelganger ships to deliver doppelganger sneakers to a doppelganger warehouse? As I said, once you start scratching below the surface, the premise starts to fall apart and it’s better just to enjoy the story without thinking too hard about it.

I really enjoyed the father in this story. Gabe is more than the classic ‘clueless dad.’ He’s a sort of everyman who asks the questions anyone would be asking if his wife started ‘having a bad feeling.’ The scene where Gabe confronts the doppelganger family is hilarious as he’s trying to be tough, but in fact, he’s like all of us. Tough on the outside, afraid on the inside.

Greg, don’t forget that those cute little rabbits were the main food source for the doppelgangers. To be honest, I don’t understand the significance of the rabbits, other than they “multiply” like the doppelgangers do. I guess I had to turn my brain off and just accept certain details, too.

Us is Jordan Peele’s latest brilliant film that establishes him as the best incarnation of Rod Serling since, well, Rod Serling himself. The beauty of Us is that it can be enjoyed at the very simple level of a silly horror film, and at the same time it can be enjoyed as deeper commentary about American society. I admit that there are some gaps in my understanding of the depth and nuances of this commentary, but there are plenty of fascinating pieces to the puzzle to keep us guessing at the full meaning of it all. Peele is emerging as a genius filmmaker and I look forward to his next offering. I give Us 4 Reels out of 5.

Our heroes here are Red and Adelaide, the original and her doppelganger, each thrown onto their hero’s journeys in a way that is unique and fascinating. They are both certainly transformed by their journeys and, in turn, their journeys are forever transforming the US of A. One could also argue that the entire Wilson family is a hero ensemble that must rise to the occasion to overcome the doppelganger attack. The hero structure here is wildly creative and earns 4 Hero points out of 5.

The precise message of the movie still eludes me, but I suspect Peele may be making the point that a huge, oppressed group of people may be poised to overthrow the status quo. Moreover, this group may be more motivated and better organized than we think, as evidenced by the doppelgangers’ ability to join hands across America more successfully than above-ground society. I’m still working on figuring out the message but I suspect that whatever it is, it’s going to keep moviegoers speculating about it for many decades. For this reason I give the message 4 Message points out of 5.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

I agree with you Scott. Us is an entertaining horror film with a side dish of social commentary. I’m not sure the social commentary is as clear as in his last film Get Out, but Us is at least as entertaining. The final twist was surprising and satisfying. I’m not sure I want to try and extrude any meaning that isn’t there. I think it’s enough that we had an alternative to a zombie apocalypse that was unique and entertaining. I also award Us 4 out of 5 Reels.

The hero’s journey here is also unique. Adelaide is a hero trying to save her family from a fate worse than death. But in the end, we find out that Red is the original and Adelaide was the doppelganger who replaced the original in the 1980s. So, Red is the hero who organized the uprising of the doppelganger underworld so that she could take her rightful place. But then Adelaide – the true doppelganger – defeats the original. So, that makes Adelaide an anti-hero. It’s a wonderful intertwined hero’s journey. (As an aside, the final scene makes clear that Adelaide’s son has figured it all out. His conflicted and tortured face followed by Adelaide’s knowing smile was an amazing close-out to this movie). I give Red and Adelaide 4 Heroes out of 5.

I also found the message of this film to be muddied. The allegory of the government control program with rabbits and tunnels and hands across America was lost on me. I’m not sure I’m motivated enough to watch the film again to try and decipher the underlying meaning. I’ll give Us 3 out of 5 Message points.

Movie: Message: Heroes:

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