Skip to main content

Nobody wants the boat, dad.

Us
(2019)

(SPOILERS) 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 onlyoffers the most ungainly of expository monologues in the latter stages of Us to that essential effect, during which we’re told that 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 itbears 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 – 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 supremelyun-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 didin 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 to this one; 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 mighthave embraced his cloning conspiracy theme wholeheartedly – in a movie that 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), fluoride in our drinking water, and the documented proliferation of underground bases – but seems content to leave it flailing in rather inert and ungainly fashion, instead remixing old standards, of going down the rabbit hole and fear of the Other.

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 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 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 of 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 the 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 unflattering like they’re suffering a major attack of the emperor’s new clothes. 


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…