Daily Archives: July 8, 2019

Us (2019)

* OK, bear with me on this one.
*. I really liked Get Out. In fact, it’s one of my favourite films — not just horror films, but films — of the last five years. Why? Because it has such a tight, well-constructed plot. The premise may be far-fetched, but if you accept it then everything else follows logically and makes sense.
*. I did not like Us. This is in part because I don’t think it’s as well made, but mostly because it does not make sense. Who, or what, are the Tethered? Red doesn’t seem to know, and her explanation (that they were somehow made by humans in order to control people on the surface like puppets) is highly implausible if not contradicted by the evidence of how they seem to actually operate. How many of them are there? How do they live? How do they all escape from the underground? Are they only in the U.S., or are they also found in other countries with abandoned subway lines and alarming Gini coefficients? What is their revolutionary purpose? Do they just want to rise up and join hands across America? Shouldn’t they all be wearing sunglasses or suffering from Vitamin D deficiencies?
*. None of this would be a problem, or at least be a big problem, if Us was only presenting itself as a fantasy or allegory. That notion of a literal underclass — the myth of the Morlocks — has been recycled a lot over the last twenty years or so in speculative fiction and film. Which is as you would expect during a time of increasing social and economic inequality.
*. But the thing is, Jordan Peele apparently wanted the movie to be judged more as a straight-up horror movie and not a horror-comedy or social commentary. If we judge it this way then I think it should make sense, as Get Out did. Otherwise the fear factor is overcome by confusion and a plague of nagging questions.
*. To take just one example of how frustrating this is, take the plot twist that everything relies on. Not to pat myself on the back, but I had this figured out in the very early going. It was clear to me shortly after Red arrives with her family in the driveway that there had been a switch in the House of Mirrors years earlier. What confused me, and what left me confused even after the end of the movie, was how this worked. Red wanted revenge, I could get that, but what was (the new) Adelaide’s game? Is she going to be the leader of the revolution now, or is she just going to settle into a comfortable bourgeois life above ground?

*. I don’t like being stuck with all these questions. It seems they only confuse the film’s otherwise rather simple message about class and privilege.
*. But that’s what Us is: a confusing, and/or confused, take on a not-very-original theme. At one point, for example, once it becomes clear to the family that the outbreak of doubles is more general and is in fact spreading everywhere (they even see a news report on TV about what’s going on), there’s a scene where they debate whether they should just stay where they are (with food and water) or get in an SUV and try to run for the border. This is, of course, a scene that will be familiar to anyone who has seen a zombie movie. And, as the family drive through the deserted streets, littered with bodies, we recognize the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse being, I would add, yet another form the theme of class warfare has taken in our time, along with the home-invasion film (which Us also invokes).
*. Only this isn’t just another zombie movie because . . . ? Well, because Jordan Peele is a bright guy and he’s thrown not just one bone but a whole bag of them out there for the critics. There are hints, direct and indirect, to an entire catalogue of other horror movies. Jaws. The Goonies. The Shining. Critics love this kind of thing. There are also lots of Easter eggs to keep everyone chattering online. There’s the number 11. What could that mean? Jeremiah 11:11. Hm. So we go read that. Does it have any special meaning here? Well, yes, it could be seen as saying something. But it’s more a kind of general prophetic warning. Meanwhile, look at all those rabbits! I wonder what’s up with them! I’ll bet they’re symbols. Or something.
*. Anthony Lane thought that “Marxists and Freudians alike will have years of fun with this movie.” I think they may be done with it already.
*. All of the bones just strike me as being cute. Cute more than clever, and I don’t rate cleverness that highly. Do they make Us a bad movie? No. But they’re just included to prime the critical pump, and what I find most depressing is precisely that programmed critical response.
*. Immediately upon its release Us was met with universal praise, mostly from critics who saw it as having some important message to deliver about race or class in America. Which it does, but, as I’ve been saying, it was delivering this message in a way that was both formulaic (the Morlock myth, the zombie parallel) and scattered all over the place. In this it was almost the opposite (or evil twin?) of Get Out, which was so successful in conveying the same message in a more focused manner. Nevertheless, as though being carried along in the wake of that earlier movie, critics simply piled on to say all the same things. Us! It’s like U.S.! Oh my God! Did you notice that?
*. It’s hard not to feel that critics, surprised by the success of Get Out, felt a need to overcompensate in their response to Us. Nobody wanted to miss the same boat twice. And so we were treated to endless reviews much like Richard Brody’s, telling us that “Us is nothing short of a colossal achievement.” This it most certainly is not. Here’s an example of how bad things have gotten, taken from Brody’s review: “Peele employs point-of-view shots to put audience members in the position of the characters, to conjure subjective and fragmentary experience that reverberates with the metaphysical eeriness of their suddenly doubled world. ” That’s an awful lot of overblown verbiage to describe something — a point-of-view shot in a horror movie — that was in no need of explanation in the first place.
*. A couple of somewhat funny scenes. Some suspense, but the horror potential is never realized (with the child doubles in particular being underutilized in this regard). I’ll give it credit for a bit of weirdness what with all the Tethered business, but it’s a weirdness that doesn’t stand any looking into. Lupita Nyong’o is terrific, and is the sole reason I’d rate this one slightly above average. But that’s as high as I’d place it.