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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.