I loved Jordan Peele’s first movie, Get Out. I thought it was one of the top five movies of 2017. So I was very excited about Us, Peele’s second movie. The trailer made it look quite creepy, if not downright scary. There’s a lot to like about the movie. The premise is interesting. The cast, especially Lupita Nyong’o, is excellent. But the problems with the movie were so jarring that I couldn’t overlook them. The first and, in my opinion, biggest problem is some lazy film-making. There are two extended scenes of exposition in which one of Nyong’o’s characters (every actor plays two) explains to her other character what’s going on. I hated both of these scenes. I’d be curious to know what the movie would be like if these two scenes were simply cut. Would the audience be able to make any sense whatsoever about what is going on without them? I know some people would hate the movie without the explanation but I’m still curious. The other big problem is that these explanations don’t create a world that is internally consistent–see below. There were also two scenes that I would call “violence porn” in their graphic, extended depiction of violence. Both were perpetrated by humans rather than clones and so that might be part of the point that Peele is trying to make but they both went on too long and too lovingly for my tastes. That said, there were things that I loved about the movie. For example, there’s an intriguing line in the movie: “We are Americans.” I’ll also say more about that below.
Spoiler alert: don’t read the next two paragraphs if you are going to see the movie and don’t want the major reveals spoiled for you.
At the end of the movie, we learn that Nyong’o’s character that we think is human is actually the tethered soulless body of her clone. Her human self was dragged from our world as a child into the hellish underworld of the clones. This revelation made some of the actions of the character we thought was human make more sense. For example, there are a couple of times where she shows much empathy for the soulless clones of her children. On the other hand, this makes the actions of the actual human make less sense. The actual human is bent on revenge and shows no empathy to the actual human children. Why would a soulless clone show empathy for children that are not her own? I think the point is that the soulless clone shows more humanity than the human but the human has been through so much trauma that I don’t think it’s a strong point about the nature of humanity. Another issue is that the soulless clone left the underworld after dragging the human down there. Why can’t all of the clones leave? The human ends up creating an army of the clones that rise up out of the underworld to take revenge on the humans. How can they suddenly all leave the underworld? Why didn’t she leave earlier? The human is able to train the clones but none of them can speak. Her own clone learned how to speak so why didn’t the human teach the other clones to do so? The clones are supposedly tethered to the humans, mindlessly mimicking their behavior. Except when they don’t mimic. The clones act independently once they leave the underworld except when the plot needs them to be controlled by their human again.
As I said, there were some things I loved. Nyong’o is mesmerizing on the screen. The other actors are also good. Some of the shots are just absolutely beautiful. But the thing I loved most was the line “We are Americans.” This is spoken by Nyong’o’s character (the one who is human but grew up in the underworld after being forcibly switched by her soulless clone) when asked “Who are you?” As part of the explanation of what’s going on in the plot, we see the human world on the night that Nyong’o’s character is forced underground. She had been on a beach boardwalk with her parents and lots of other people, playing carnival games and eating a candy apple. The movie then shows us what’s going on underground. The clones are engaged in mindless mimicry of the actions of the humans. It looks depressing and ridiculous. And I think that’s the point–that the activities that occupy the time of most Americans are mindless, depressing, ridiculous. Anyway, lots of people are writing lots of stuff about the meaning of this movie. They are making interesting observations about the social commentary of the film. I wish the stuff that got in the way of my full enjoyment of the movie weren’t there or were handled more deftly.
Peele clearly has a lot to say about American culture as demonstrated by these first two movies. Even though I didn’t love this movie, I look forward to his next one.
At Smitty’s with Ann, Abby, Evan, Mary Beth, Scott, Tab, Katie, and Levi
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.