Film And Movies

What Went Wrong With… Us (2019)?

"You, Us, We" (a review of Jordan Peele's Us 2019)

From The Vaults Of WhatWentWrongWith.com

Us is a very underwhelming film, and judging by its score on various review aggregate sites, it’s a hell of an overrated one too. The trailer promised horror and an eerie atmosphere but there’s hardly any in the finished product. Like Jordan Peele’s previous offering Get Out, this movie isn’t scary at all, in fact it attempts to make up for the lack of scares with lacklustre comedy and a bit of political and social opinion, but even that fails abysmally this time around. The title, I assume, is supposed to be a double meaning; you could take it as “US” as in U.S. (the United States) as well as “Us” as in we, meaning me, you, and all of us. In my opinion, the title suggests we’re all the same, and even though the United States doesn’t have an official class system, it potentially asks the nation why there’s a “lower” class and why do we as a modern and generally wealthy society have a group of downtrodden and ignored people? With a set of privileged characters having underground doppelgangers, the question is posed to the audience: what if they were you? Under a different set of circumstances – from upbringing to environment – they easily could be. This is an admirable opinion to have but Us is not a successful allegory (more on that later) and that’s on top of it lacking in the horror department.

Before I go on, I have to mention that this is the kind of review that assumes its reader has watched the film in question. There’s a shit-tonne of spoilers to come, so if you haven’t watched Us yet, go and do so… See how a “negative” review can still promote a product? But I digress.

The movie opens in Santa Cruz back in 1986. A girl named Adelaide wanders away from her parents on a day-trip and comes face-to-face with her double in a house of mirrors. It turns out that everyone on the planet (or at least in America) has a doppelganger living underground, and for some unknown reason, you can access their dwelling directly from a beach-side amusement park. Makes perfect sense… not.

The underground is an obvious metaphor for the forgotten class, possibly too obvious (Parasite anyone?). During the opening titles we see lots of white rabbits trapped in gold-ish cages, some black, some brown but mainly white, which I saw as representative of U.S. population demographics. The cage itself could be seen as a “gilded cage”, which is basically a luxurious prison (although it’s not exactly luxury down there and it’s rabbits and not birds, so err…?).

The overalls that the doppelgangers wear, I assume, represents the uniform of prisoners and menial workers but what about the single brown driving glove, the shiny, seamstress scissors, and the hippy sandals? Blue collar workers or homeless people don’t wear sandals (some blue collars do wear boiler suits I guess) but what about the rest? And why are the jumpsuits red? Yes, yes, I know, “Hands Across America”, the 1986 fundraiser for homelessness and hunger that this movie references, but to replicate that logo, they’d need red gloves, red shoes, red socks, and red balaclavas to get the correct look.

During the opener, Adelaide is seen with a toffee apple which is sweet on the outside but comparatively unappealing under the surface which reinforces this idea of the over and underground. The red jumpsuit (as well as the red toffee apple) may or may not also be representative of the “Red States” (generally conservative and working class) but this might be asking too much of the screenplay and costume designers. There’s of course the distinct possibility that red was also chosen because, you know… blood and gore and horror and stuff (yawn).

Whilst I’m on this topic, I may as well add that in the present day beach scene, a red and gold, star-stickered Frisby lands over a blue circle on a beach towel and this could possibly be a comment on how China has taken over American manufacturing, products, or even jobs. Or maybe I’m giving way too much credit to Jordan Peele who seems to have chucked random shit into a filmic pot and sold it to stereotypical liberals who lap-up everything he offers, good or bad.

We see “Hands Across America” at various times throughout the film (on TV and on a t-shirt) but the eye-rolling reference during the finale, along with the non-twist, just spoiled any enjoyment I had up to that point (and there wasn’t much by way of enjoyment in the first place). After watching the film, instead of feeling fulfilled, I had numerous questions and comments. Here’s a few of them:

  • Why do the doppelgangers revolt in the present day and not in 1996 or 2006 or any other time?

  • The 1986 house of mirrors is located in a Native American-themed locale called “Shaman’s Vision Quest” (the sign also says “Find Yourself” which I found too obvious given the storyline). In the present day we then see that the name has changed to “Merlin’s Forest” but why? Because Native or First Nation culture has been usurped by European culture in North America? Right on, but the underground doppelgangers have presumably existed as long as class and poverty has, so how was 1986 an aboriginal existence in the U.S.A. let alone in Santa Cruz?

  • Why is there access to the underworld in a fairground of all places, other than to remind us 80’s babies of The Lost Boys? Why not an entry-way in a prison, an orphanage, a school, a hospital or somewhere we generally accept hierarchy since that’s part of the film’s message?

  • Whilst on a car journey, out of nowhere Adelaide’s daughter Zora asks “Did you know that there’s fluoride in the water that the government uses to control our minds?”. Okay, another potentially decent point of view but remember… it’s that “Hands Across America” movie not a conspiracy theory flick. The girl continues; “I forgot, nobody cares about the end of the world?”. Is it the end of the world? We’ve been fluoridating water for over 75 years. Prior to that we weren’t living in a utopia. Just buy some Voss, it looks like your family can afford it.

  • This fluoride/apocalypse exchange then leads to that cringe-worthy “Da Luniz” scene where the group’s 90’s hit “I Got 5 On It” is played. Adelaide says to her son Jason “get in rhythm” and starts clicking her fingers, but why “get in rhythm” to this song? Maybe they should have used Bill Withers’ “Just The Two Of Us” since Jordan Peele has a thing for not-too-subtle hints at the story. I know there’s a scene further down the line when her son’s double “Pluto” clicks his fingers but since Jason’s finger-clicking if off-beat, the whole scene is senseless.

  • Slowed down and played on a stringed instrument, “I Got 5 On It” is still not scary or ominous, and sounds random, if not entirely pointless.

  • When the doppelganger family are asked “Who are you people?” their mother/leader “Red” says “We’re Americans” which is either corny and vomit-inducing or too conspicuous a message which in turn lessens the atmosphere of that particular scene (or both).

  • Adelaide’s husband Gabe says “Let’s set up some traps”, like some Home Alone type stuff” to which she replies “Please don’t tell me you referenced Home Alone”. Referenced? He mentioned it by name. Referencing it would be something like “Let’s do a Kevin McCallister”. That’s just some of the bad dialogue on offer here.

  • We discover that the underground folk don’t speak, which might be a comment on how the underrepresented are “voiceless”. Nobody dressed in red talks but “Red” can, which as an audience member means she’s the overground version (so that’s the twist ruined). But, since Adelaide can talk too, the voiceless metaphor goes out the window. So that’s two elements ruined for the price of one.

  • We see lots of “elevens” everywhere (“Cal 11 News Tonight – 11 At 11”, the young Adelaide choosing the “number 11” shirt etc.). This is supposed to have some kind of biblical reference since we also see a bloke on the boardwalk (and later in an ambulance) holding a cardboard sign which reads “Jeremiah 11:11”. After copying and pasting from an online Bible, this passage is: “I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape. Although they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.”. Take what you want from this quote, my only question is why does the Bible even play a part in this narrative? Is it because that too is unfocussed and overrated? As someone who’s secular, “11:11” is a time you wish for crap. Maybe Peele should have wished for a better goddamn screenplay.

  • The virtual assistant (“Ophelia”) thinks “call the police” sounds like “play N.W.A.” or “play ‘Fuck The Police’” which it doesn’t. Even with a garbled voice it doesn’t sound remotely the same. This is an example of how the comedy doesn’t land and feels contrived, not to mention out of place.

  • There’s some very bad makeup for Pluto’s burnt and scarred lower-face.

  • Why does Elisabeth Moss’ doppelganger character self-mutilate her facial skin whilst smiling? Because she’s good at acting weird? But plot-wise, it’s because err…?

  • When the culling ensues, maybe just find some red overalls and blend in. They’re apparently real easy to buy from somewhere, in bulk even.

  • The explanation that Red gives for the doppelgangers’ existence is that humans figured out how to copy people, but since a soul is shared, they’re tethered together blah, blah, blah… something about them being made so they could “control the ones above”, but hold up, they eat, shit, fuck, marry, give birth, and ride imaginary roller-coasters when the above lot does, so how are they the controllers? So what’s the point in them again?

  • Toward the end, Pluto mirrors Jason’s movements back into a burning car. But hold on once more; that never happened before, in fact if that’s how much they’re tethered, then it would be impossible to get bloody revenge.

  • The whole idea of a tethered double no longer being tethered because she met her soul-twin, doesn’t apply to everyone else in the underground. How did they escape given that they have to do exactly as their overground counterparts do? And if they were freed by Lupita’s character then why does Pluto bother copying Jason at the end or at any time?

  • Who maintains these relatively clean underground bunkers? A better metaphor would be squalor, dark, possibly unmanaged and chaotic. Since the doubles are so tethered that they have to spin around in a room on foot whenever someone’s on a fairground ride, when, how, and who cleans and services all these tunnels?

  • If the walls, rooms, doorways, and hallways don’t match the overground world to the centimetre, which they don’t, these poor doppelgangers would be bumping into all kinds of shit almost constantly.

  • The underground counterparts have character names which don’t match each other or mirror the overground characters: Adelaide/Red, her husband Gabe/Abraham, their daughter Zora/Umbrae, and their son Jason/Pluto. One is a colour, the other is a biblical character, one means a shadow or darkness, and then we have the furthest planet or the Greek god of the underworld. These names aren’t even the opposite of their corresponding overworld character names. Even in terms of narrative and characteristics, they’re not the protagonists’ opposites or the pyromaniac “Pluto” would have, let’s say, an ice-skating or snowboarding real-world opposing twin in Jason.

  • Speaking of twins, there’s a really bad split-diopter shot at the end when Adelaide and Red talk in the underground bunker. Jordan Peele isn’t Brian DePalma or Alfred Hitchcock even though critics think he’s on-par with the latter and superior to the former.

  • Why does Red (or Adelaide) stare at the “Hands Across America” t-shirt specifically? The first time she met her over-world double was when they were wearing Michael Jackson “Thriller” tees. If Red had referenced that during her revolution, we might have had a funnier revenge and potentially a better finale.

  • The blood on Lupita’s cheek toward the end of the movie is in the shape of a cross with a bow or crescent or shooting star over it. I’m not religious but I’ve seen that somewhere. It’s not Egyptian or Coptic and I don’t think it’s a zodiac glyph but it must mean something, right?

  • Jason witnessed his sister Zora beat someone to death with a golf club but he later looks at his mother as though she’s doing something strange when she kills one of the doppelgangers in their friend’s kitchen.

  • During the final scene, why is Jason looking at Adelaide in a scared and accusatory way? Regardless of the audience’s realisation of who is who, she’s the same mum he’s always had! Sellout.

This brings me neatly to the not-so-neat “twist”. As far as twists go, this one’s from the Mark Wahlberg Planet Of The Apes school of twists; if you apply logic, none of it makes any sense. We discover through a flashback and a cheeky look that Adelaide is actually Red and Red is Adelaide, because they swapped places back in 1986.

I don’t know about you, but the way the opening was conveyed, I assumed the girl was swapped from the get-go so there was either no need for the plot twist or the twist was ruined from the outset, at least for me. Later on in the film, “Red” recants as an adult; “When I was a kid I wandered on the boardwalk” but this isn’t what happened if she’s supposed to be the underground doppelganger. So okay, she’s the original Adelaide, so twist ruined again if you didn’t twig the first time round.

“Red” says she never saw sky, felt the sun or the wind but it turns out she’s the swapped one, so she felt and saw everything the earth has to offer for the first several years, surely? And if Red is actually the original Adelaide, why does she have a croaky voice? She could still speak down there even if nobody else could (sing to herself, speak to the other mutes, teach them English instead of being arrange-married to a grunting, wailing bloke). A prisoner doesn’t come out of solitary confinement with a hoarse voice so why? You usually get a voice like that from talking too much or shouting. Hey, maybe it was while she was yelling into a megaphone as she ran an underground-underground sweatshop where they sewed and dyed all those red boiler suits.

Red (really Adelaide) at one point says to Adelaide (really Red); “If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have danced at all” meaning the underground doppelganger who knew no language and acted “strange”, gained a voice, learned English, suppressed her in-built “scary” personality, and decided of her own volition to go and do ballet? Makes perfect sense.

The “normal” Adelaide was generally quiet anyway as though she was supposed to be shy or “odd” pre-swap. This was probably intended as a red-herring but this flip-flopping didn’t result in a Usual Suspects or Sixth Sense. You’re supposed to misdirect us for the entire film, not keep hinting at the ending.

Let’s be honest; if M. Night Shyamalan had made this exact movie with this exact twist, critics and cinema-goers would have mauled it to death, so why not in this case? Is it because we have a hierarchy of race and skin colour when it comes to overrating entertainment in our so-called modern, “we’re oh so inclusive” world? Jordan Peele must be respected no matter what but “Shamalamadingdong” is how we refer to that brown filmmaker over there. Says more about American society than Us in my opinion.

Aside from the multiple issues with the plot, most other aspects of Us are average at best; the cinematography, the shots, the mood, the atmosphere, and the dialogue all lack something. Thankfully, in terms of acting, there’s a few likeable cast members or characters. William Duke is okay, Tim Heidecker is adequate, Elisabeth Moss does a decent mad double, but it’s Lupita Nyong’o who offers viewers some brilliant acting as the “shadow” version of herself. Like Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out, having a talented lead actor seems to lead to the mass-overrating of the film itself.

Back to the plot, the frigging logistics of ordering gloves, shears, and overalls in bulk must be a gargantuan undertaking, not only in terms of cost and secretive delivery but filling tax forms each year once the I.R.S. (or the underground I.R.S. who must also exist) gets wind of their spending (are they some kind of commune, a charity, or a corporation?). Hell, they couldn’t have any of the shit they have down there unless the overground folk bought it first, so the whole plot kinda unravels at that point.

Regardless of that issue, for some unknown reason while the almost impossible, millions-of-red-suit-making (or purchasing) task was being carried out, nobody thought of ordering some ovens, hobs, and spices, to cook and marinade the cold, tasteless rabbits. And that brings me to why the allegory doesn’t work. Firstly, why rabbits? Rabbits can be seen as tricksters, cowards, or good luck, depending on the part of the world you’re located. In the west or the United States specifically, rabbits are a symbol for sexuality, in fact they’re known for breeding or over-breeding. Their inclusion in Us therefore, could be a comment on overpopulation, specifically in the “lower classes”, which is not exactly socially conscious, in fact it’s a little offensive. Add that to the fact that the doppelgangers are coming to kill the middle and upper-middle classes, Peele is essentially suggesting that the working class people are maniacs whose only expression is violence and grunting. They won’t come to the table and talk, hell, they can’t talk. Sure, they can be taught to speak (and therefore educated) but they’re still a violent class of people, a savage bunch who eat uncooked meat. Nice message.

We also have to consider the opening paragraph: “There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental United States… Abandoned subway systems, unused service routes, and deserted mine shafts… Many have no purpose at all.”. It’s the working classes that built these places and it could be read that since their creations or work has no purpose, neither does the working classes. As a metaphor for the “abandoned” and “deserted” section of the population, if everything we make is pointless and unneeded, so too are we. It’s very easy to read this movie as a piece of elitist propaganda, very similar to the overrated Parasite, whose metaphors were also overt, the message also barbed, but the praise almost universal.

Given the “Hands Across America” references, coupled with the fact that homelessness and hunger problem hasn’t been solved, Us is not about meaningless gestures or equality or even charity, which begs the question: why make an entire movie about a forgotten 80’s charity? This film is not about homelessness since the doppelgangers have a home and it’s not about hunger since there’s an overabundance of rabbit meat to eat. So is it an anti-class or pro-class film instead? Well the plot is that the poor are coming to kill the wealthy, so you should kill them first! Who exactly is the hero in this scenario?

Described by many as social commentary, I couldn’t see any liberal or socially conscious opinions worth defending or worth praising. Since this flick purports to have a message, irrespective of what that might be, I was never shocked, I never felt uncomfortable or challenged, and I never felt saddened for the plight of either the protagonists or antagonists. In the end, the film lacked any kind of sense of logic for it to be seen as deeply meaningful. Mute, underground-dwelling, “Hands Across America” logo-looking clones who eat raw rabbit almost reads like a Mad Lib. When Gabe says “What is this? Some kind of fucked-up performance art?”, this is actually a perfect description of the film itself.

From Us To You.

Writing: 3/10

Directing: 5/10

Acting: 7/10

Overall: 4/10

From The Vaults Of WhatWentWrongWith.com

This is a previously unpublished post from 2019 due to the fact that I didn’t watch the film in time for the review to coincide with the UK release date. Some elements were later added in 2020.

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