A good science fiction movie asks us to suspend disbelief by cleverly walking the line between plot elements based on science facts, and the manipulation of those facts into a realm where we can imagine a world in which the improbable becomes possible.
For instance, in Jordan Peele’s Oscar winning directorial debut, Get Out (2017), the science of brain transplantation (fiction) through neurosurgery (fact) is combined with hypnosis (fact) to trap and victimize visitors at a wealthy family’s estate. From there, unsuspecting youthful marks are lured and their bodies stolen for use by aging conspirators.
Both Get Out and Us are being promoted within the Horror and Thriller genres, but as detailed above, I consider Get Out to be a Science Fiction film, and believe that Us belongs there as well. That said, they are both thrilling and horrifying.
In an opening flashback we visit a seaside carnival in Santa Cruz, California during 1986, where a couple and their young daughter Adelaide are playing carnival games. Adelaide wanders off and gets lost in a funhouse filled with mirrors. The power goes out (a device repeated later), leaving Adelaide panicky and eventually face to face with her actual double, not a mirror image. One therapist and years later, Adelaide and her own family return to her parents’ home for a vacation in, of all places, Santa Cruz. There are lots of fun memories there.
During a trip to the beach, a stranger with a cardboard sign that reads “Jeremiah 11:11” attracts the interest of their son Jason, who begins to wander off at about the same age as Adelaide when she vanished. I guess it runs in the family. Oh, the sign-carrying dude was also there in 1986. I guess he’s been hanging out for several decades. He’s older now. And according to Jordan Peele, this bible passage expresses the underlying theme of duality in Us. (see below)
And this may be where Peele is trying to create too many connections. At first, coincidences begin to surface. A clock reads 11:11, the score of a ball game is 11 to 11. But this goes nowhere. The t-shirt Adelaide wore early in the film was emblazoned with a Hands Across America logo. This becomes important later.
The biggest problem with Us is that the underlying science is sort of pointless and poorly explained. Before the movie begins, on-screen text informs us that there are thousands of miles of abandoned and unused tunnels, subways, mine shafts and other subterranean passageways, many with no known purpose. It is later revealed that an entire race of soul-less cloned humans has been living underground. It is mentioned that “they” were able to create bodies but not souls. It is not explained who did this, why everyone was duplicated or what they hoped to accomplish.
Eventually a family of zombie-like doppelgangers shows up in the driveway of the vacation home. There is a double for each member of the family, one creepier than the next. Momma zombie tells a story in a barely perceptible guttural sequence that holds the captive human family spellbound and terrified. It is the tale of “shadow people” that have suffered long enough, darn it. The time has come to get their due. In a scene reminiscent of War of the Worlds, the evening news reveals that cities across America are being taken over by mysterious red-suited strangers. But wait, how is it that Momma zombie can talk, while all of the others are voiceless?
In their subterranean hideaway, it appears that the shadow people lived on a diet of uncooked rabbits and were able to dress themselves in uniform red jumpsuits. Where they got the material or skills to fabricate these is not explained, nor is the requisite large golden scissors they each carry. Perhaps Amazon made deliveries to the underground.
Of course, as with Get Out, there is a plot twist at the end. It turns out that Adelaide and her double switched places the night she ran away. Good became evil and evil became good I guess. And thus, good Adelaide became the leader of the shadow people, equipping them with her child-like understanding of the image on her own t-shirt, to link themselves hand in hand like paper dolls. If Adelaide’s husband ever figures out whom he’s been living with he’ll need some therapy of his own. Date nights through the years could have gone in an entirely different direction.
The genuinely silly concept is one in which Hands Across America, a 1986 benefit event to link 6.5 million people by holding hands from coast to coast for 15 minutes becomes integral to the under-grounders in staging their emergence. In theory, enough people participated in the real event to have spanned the required distance, but there were many significant gaps. All it achieves in Us is a confusing gap in logic, with red-clad doubles drawing attention to themselves as if to say, here we are, come and get us. Two hovering helicopters are perhaps precursors to their easy annihilation.
The good news is, shadow people can be killed. In a disturbing but darkly humorous subplot, it’s fascinating to see how readily the vacationers descend into madness in a killing spree they shrug off as gratifying and necessary. It’s a bloody mess featuring a baseball bat, golf club, car, boat and paperweight.
Lupita Nyong'o plays the adult Adelaide. We recognize her from 12 Years a Slave. Her husband Gabe provides a bit of much needed comic relief in the capable hands of Winston Duke, from Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Neighbor Kitty is played by the now very familiar Elisabeth Moss, whose role in The Handmaid's Tale has made her a natural for the horror/thriller space.
Jordan Peele decided to get serious after his departure from Key and Peele, the award winning Comedy Central series that ran for about three years beginning in 2012. His surprising success with Get Out may have convinced him to pursue a directorial path as a master of modern horror, much like M. Night Shyamalan’s quest. It remains to be seen if he can continue to score hits reminiscent of his first outing. For now, Us appears to be a second feather in his cap, but like others before him, as the bar rises, there will be greater scrutiny on his ability to clear the next hurdle and avoid become predictable and formulaic.
At the end of the day, Us works as a thriller. You’ll cheer when shadow people are killed and sit on the edge of your seat for most of the movie. When we exited the theater, a number of people were dressed in red. And there were two teenagers who wore huge rabbit heads before the film started. THAT was creepy!
For your reference, Jeremiah 11:11
"Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them."
Us (2019) runs 1 hour, 56 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?