After his sensational debut with the Oscar-winning comedic thriller Get Out, Jordan Peele has returned as writer and director with a doppelganger horror movie, Us. Having enjoyed his tightly-knit writing and clever incorporation of social commentary in his first film, I quickly bought a ticket to his new release on the opening weekend. However, the experience was not as refreshing as expected. While it clearly has its strengths and will leave audiences searching for explanations, Us fails to deliver itself as a cohesive film by aiming for too much.
Us begins with a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) accompanied by her parents at the Santa Cruz amusement park, when she wanders off to the beach on her own. An eerie entrance to a hall of mirrors awaits her, into which she curiously walks in. When the lights suddenly turn off, she gets frightened and looks through endless reflections for the exit. She then notices a reflection that is not quite right — the doppelganger turns around and she is left in shock. Years later, Adelaide returns with her husband and children to their vacation home by the same beach. Still traumatized by the experience, she is unable to stay long at the beach when she notices strange coincidences and urges her family to return indoors. As nighttime leads the Wilsons to bed, they are disturbed by a family lined up on their driveway. When they get a closer look, they realize the strangers are doubles of themselves.
The movie sets the eerie tone from the start. Although we see people riding roller coasters and enjoying snacks, their cheerfulness feels distant and the opening scene feels unnervingly chilling. While admiring this example of masterful direction, I was already beginning to regret coming to the theaters alone. The ensuing scenes continuously built up the tension through the use of a memorable soundtrack and foreboding symbolism. By the time the doubles appeared, I was on the edge of my seat.
Unfortunately, the fear did not escalate much further. Fake Adelaide, or Red, begins her lengthy monologue explaining their origin and we get the feeling that the doubles will not easily harm the real family. While the movie continues to scare, as soon as this sense of danger is gone, moments that are supposed to feel tense significantly lose their intensity.
However, Us is definitely not a traditional horror movie that only offers momentary scares. There is an abundance of symbolism, from the most obvious biblical references to hidden homages to past horror films. The concept of doppelgangers itself alludes to a variety of themes, but combine that with the social message suggested by the “Hands Across America” television ad and you get dozens of interpretations from different viewers. Audiences will leave the theater wondering about the parts they could not quite grasp — a second viewing will, for many, uncover new details.
Part of the ambiguity, on the other hand, comes from the lack of clear direction. It starts strong with elements of horror and symbolism but soon falls down to explanatory narrative with Red’s aforementioned monologue. From here on, we cannot help but interpret the rest of the story through the lens of the monologue. However, it is distracting as the events are not meant to be taken literally. Then, there is the middle part, which feels more like a completely different apocalypse survival movie. Finally, the ending, the most metaphorical of all, is hard to take seriously because of the many changes in tone.
The more you try to understand Us, the less sense it will make. It was an ambitious attempt to deliver much at once, but failed to do so effectively. Had the narrative been kept minimal, it would have allowed us to focus on the hidden meanings behind the symbolism while appreciating the horror experience more as well. Thankfully, however, it did not fall into its genre’s clichés. (I was almost certain an element of horror would come from the doubles masquerading as the reals.) Nevertheless, Us will continue to spark discussion concerning its ending and message in the times to come.