The Trouble with 'Us'
Meet the Tethered and their fatal flaw.
Twist endings only work, or pleasantly surprise audiences, when you cannot see them coming. Jordan Peele’s “Us,” while it is visually stimulating, thought-provoking and ultimately entertaining, suffers from the same fatal flaw which doomed the vastly overrated and overly celebrated “Get Out” (2017):
The intended convolution can be seen a mile away.
Peele isn’t fooling anyone, or surprising them during the finale, but he certainly knows how to make a haunting motion picture, nonetheless.
Unfortunately, Peele loses his footing immediately. He undermines his own story, and the effectiveness of its narrative structure, by giving away the goods during the film’s opening sequence. It's obvious the clone of Young Adelaide (Madison Curry) has swapped places with her counterpart. And even if you somehow didn’t put the pieces together immediately, there are clues sprinkled all through the film that the switch has taken place:
Young Adelaide can’t speak when she returns from the house of mirrors.
Adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) barks like the so-called Tethered when she dispatches the last of the twins (Cali and Noelle Sheldon).
Adult Red can speak when all the other Tethered grunt and moan only.
Knowing Adelaide and Red have swapped lives flat out ruins the end of the movie, period. Imagine, as a horror fan, that you knew Jason Voorhees was going to jump out of the lake at the end of “Friday the 13th” (1980).
Would the end of “Psycho” (1960) have been as good if you knew Norman Bates was actually Mother? And what if you realized Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) was the "dead body" lying on the cell floor in “Saw” (2004)?
No, the endings of those movies, and the films themselves, would not be iconic today.
Now, the difference between “Get Out” and “Us” is the latter is a good movie, but “Us” could have been unforgettable if the twist ending had truly been a surprise. While watching “Get Out,” it is clear that Chris’ (Daniel Kaluuya) girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) is setting him up from the very beginning. It can’t be anyone else because there are no other characters to throw you off her scent. Knowing Rose is the baddie ruins the end of “Get Out” and renders the bigger twist inert.
Now, what makes “Us” so good if the end is so tragically flawed? There are a number of first-rate allusions to horror, sci-fi and pop culture peppered throughout “Us” which will have film fans blowing up social media and movie scholars analyzing for quite a while:
There are those very familiar overalls sported by the Tethered which are also worn by another verbally-challenged horror movie character, Michael Myers. In this case, the Tethered have chosen to wear red uniforms in honor of their leader, Red, rather than sporting Michael's blue color.
In addition to Michael Myers, the Tethered exhibit both the traits of zombies from any number of apocalyptic-themed movies (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later) and the aliens in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956).
“Us” features a creepy setting while appearing to pay homage to the “Friday the 13th” films with the classic house on the water, out in the middle of nowhere, along with the backdrop of the boardwalk which takes cinephiles back to Joel Schumacher’s “The Lost Boys” (1987).
As the film progresses, audiences witness the warning of coming danger through the arrival of a massive flock of seagulls on the beach a la Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963). The Tethered, in addition to their red overalls, wear a single glove which is a nod to the glittery, white glove Michael Jackson often sported on one hand. Young Adelaide even rocks a “Thriller” t-shirt her father (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) wins for her playing a carnival game.
Peele is obviously a “Star Trek” fan, too. “Us” owes a great deal to the iconic episode of the original series titled “Mirror, Mirror” (1967). In that story, four members of the Enterprise crew transpose with their evil counterparts in a parallel universe after a freak ion storm damages the transporter. The ion storm is now a beautifully-shot thunderstorm on the darkened beach in “Us” — lightning accentuating the black sky — with the house of mirrors that Young Adelaide enters acting as the Enterprise’s transporter. And during the mayhem, the transposition takes place. But evil Adelaide, aka the clone, doesn’t return to her universe. She stays, adapts and takes over the life of the true Adelaide.
So, Lupita Nyong’o’s version of Red has every right to be angry. She was abducted and ripped from her life as a child, and now the jaded adult is on a revenge motif (a nod to all the classic revenge-based horror flicks like I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left). If Peele hadn’t screwed up the ending, we’d be talking about and celebrating near perfection in cinema.
And don’t gloss over the brilliance of a theme buried in the celluloid: environment affects who we become.
The young clone evolves into a functioning human, as she grows to adulthood, in her new environment on the surface of the world. But the human child rapidly deteriorates in the harsh, unforgiving underground tunnels. Who is the true villain? Adelaide? Red? This begs audiences to see the film a second time to experience the story from the perspective of both women.
So, the overall verdict is a positive one for “Us,” but the film could have been so much more. Technically, Peele knows his way around staging a shot. The scene of the family walking onto the beach for the first time, bathed in sunlight, with their shadows in tow is cinematic mastery. It is aesthetically pleasing while also showing, rather than telling, the story of the intertwined humans and Tethered in a subtle manner and without a word.
And there is the character development. Adelaide’s son Jason (Evan Alex) and daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) are both hybrids (humans and clones), and perhaps this explains how Jason is able to control his counterpart Pluto thus defeating him in the fire. What’s even more interesting is how the younger Jason is more clone than human — he is clearly still learning — while the older Zora is much more in touch with her humanity.
Also, the argument can be made “Get Out” exists in the same universe as “Us,” and the Armitage family and their weirdo friends and neighbors are the Tethered who have already invaded the surface world of our country.
Regardless, Peele made major strides between “Get Out” and “Us,” so here is hoping his third picture will be the charm. The filmmaker has a promising future in horror, but he is not nearly at the level of Hitchcock, Carpenter and Craven yet.