Despite the massive success of his first feature film, writer/director Jordan Peele was disappointed with his social thriller "Get Out." The 2017 film, about a black man who goes to visit the parents of his white girlfriend, was a commentary on the unique racism of white progressive America. It was intelligent, it was a unique perspective on race in America and ended up winning one of the four Oscars it was nominated for that year. It seems strange that Peele would feel disappointed about such an accomplishment, but apparently the commentary of "Get Out" tarnished his vision of adding a pure horror film to the genre.
"I'm such a horror nut that the genre confusion of 'Get Out' broke my heart a little," Peele told Rolling Stone in an interview. "I set out to make a horror movie, and it's kind of not a horror movie... As a horror fan, I really wanted to contribute something to that world."
At this point, "Us," once again written/directed by Peele, has more riding on it than Noah's ark. Not only does it carry the added expectations of living up to "Get Out's" incredible success and quality, but also serves as a beacon of hope in a year that so far has only had one really great movie. Could this possibly be all we've hyped it up to be?
While on vacation at the beach, a family of four is attacked by a group of doppelgängers who call themselves The Tethered. The family must now survive long enough to kill The Tethered.
The number one question of a horror film is whether or not it's scary. If it's not, it's the equivalent of an ice cream that tastes like depression: what's the point? "Us" is intermittently scary, which is like an ice-cream that tastes like that bland jawbreaker candy that always crumbles into pieces in your mouth.
The problem is mostly the script. It's not poorly written, it just seems to be confused by what kind of movie it's writing. "Get Out" was praised upon release for its blend of comedy and suspense and it seems that Peele felt he should continue in that vein. That's not a bad idea in theory, but in practice he took it a bit too far. At times the comedy overlaps the horror turning a moment of tension into one that's inappropriately funny.
It also depends on what kind of audience you're with when watching. This is going to be a bit of a tangent, but I feel it's something that needs to be addressed: horror films are audience-of-one experiences. Watching with any kind of audience, never mind an annoying audience, completely breaks the immersion the film was trying to create. Horror relies on the viewer taking it as seriously as he or she can. You can't take horror seriously when there's somebody sitting next to you constantly reminding you of the real world. And you really can't focus on the story when the audience is constantly laughing at stuff they shouldn't be laughing at. Why can't we all just be miserable like we're supposed to?
However, there are some elements of the story that don't improve no matter how respectful the audience is. The word "ambitious" has thrown around a lot in regards to "Us" and while it's true, it's more of a polite way of saying "It aims high, but falls short." The film has a much bigger scope than the small-scale slasher film that the trailers have promised. That's not necessarily a bad thing; starting out with a small idea that gradually grows into a massive story can be interesting and lead to great payoffs. However, "Us" doesn't get there naturally, having the story expand by the characters just coming across new plot additions. Instead, the characters seem to be dragged to different parts of the story in order to get across the film's class metaphor. It's the difference between us finding out more about Mordor because Frodo and Sam have to go there to destroy the ring and them being contrived to go there because it would serve Tolkien's technology vs nature message.
Much like "Get Out" (now there's a phrase that was probably at the top of the script notes), "Us" attempts to integrate a social message into its narrative. However, unlike "Get Out," which was explicitly about racism, "Us" is trying to be more subtle, conveying its message about class through the Tethered and their attempts to kill the family. However, when I say that "Us" is more subtle than "Get Out" I mean that in the sense that a kazoo playing in your ear is slightly less annoying than a trumpet. At one point, the Tethered of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) tells the family that "We... are... Americans!" Congratulations, movie! You've taken away the horrifying possibility that the audience would have to use their brains!
And even if the metaphor was kept subtle it doesn't entirely make sense. To say anything more in depth would be spoilers, but at the end there's a huge exposition dump basically explaining what the Tethered are, where they came from and how they relate to the real family. The whole story is kind of sketchy and it becomes even more confusing after a huge twist in the last part of the film; it just makes the mythology of the world make even less sense and raises more questions that aren't given answers.
It almost feels like the social commentary was put in because everybody was expecting it after "Get Out." However, the reason the message of "Get Out" worked so well is because it specifically wasn't just a narrative aside; it was the entire point of the story. The racism of the film's villains was the entire motivation for the horrifying actions they took. There was no separating their motivations from the main plot, thus why it feels so cohesive and tight. "Us" feels more like Jordan Peele thought up a slasher with an interesting twist and freaky imagery, but got the idea that it had to have a social message and so contrived a reason for it to happen.
Alright, I've bent this film over the rail and spanked it with a Tickle Me Elmo long enough. Is there anything I liked about "Us?" Well, the acting is pretty good. The cast that makes up the family (two of them children) have to not only portray the normal family unit, but also the Tethered versions of the same characters. This requires a lot of physical acting, as the Tethered move like they're a bunch of store mannequins just learning to walk. This is especially true of Evan Alex who has the hefty task of playing Pluto, a Tethered who acts and moves like a twitchy dog. It's all unnervingly convincing even if some stuff like the voice of Adelaide's Tethered and their stiff movements become unintentionally funny.
The ideas at play are really good even if they're not precisely coherent. The mix of sci-fi and horror feels very "Twilight Zone," which is about the highest praise I can give to a movie like this. The twist, while it pokes a few holes in the plot, is nonetheless compelling, appropriately dark and offers up several interesting questions.
A large part of why the film works at all is "Split" and "It Follows" cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. His trademark creeping camera movement and saturated textures help drive the tension and intensity of the situation. He seems to make the lighting work no matter how much of it there is; when it's a bright, clear day, it feels like it's beating down on the scene. If it's the shine of a single street lamp, it's like it's the only illumination in a sea of inky black.
"Us" is not a bad movie and I'm not going to say the deck wasn't stacked against Peele in terms of expectation. I mean, have you ever tried to follow up a piece of art that is hailed as a cultural touchstone, a work of brilliant technical filmmaking and one of the most important films of the decade? However, that's not going to stop me from calling "Us" kind of a letdown. It's still worth seeing at least once (maybe twice) and is still fundamentally a good movie, but it's not the transcendent horror masterpiece that it's been hyped up to be. If you go in with those expectations in mind, you will definitely enjoy it a lot more.