Film Theory:  What Is Us REALLY About? (Jordan Peele’s Us)

Film Theory: What Is Us REALLY About? (Jordan Peele’s Us)

October 22, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs

тнere oɴce wαѕ α мovιe тнαт wαѕ нιɢнly αɴтιcιpαтed вy αυdιeɴceѕ… α мovιe тнαт cαмe oυт, αɴd wнeɴ people ѕαw ιт, тнey coυldɴ’т αrтιcυlαтe wнy тнey lιĸed ιт. ιт wαѕ coмpleх. vαɢυe. мιхed wιтн ιтѕ мeтαpнorѕ αɴd reғereɴceѕ, αɴd yeт αт тнe ѕαмe тιмe cαмe αcroѕѕ over-eхplαιɴed. eмpтy. αɴd ѕo wαтcн αɴd leαrɴ… тнey dιdɴ’т wαrɴ υѕ тнαт yoυ overlooĸed… ιɴ υѕ. αɴd тнe ѕcαrιeѕт тнιɴɢ oғ αll: (spooky mattpat jumpscare) Hello Internet! Welcome to Film Theory! Now, let me make one thing clear up front: “Us” is a great movie, but it’s also a hard movie. I think everyone was really excited to see what Jordan Peele’s follow up to Get Out would be, and Us doesn’t disappoint It’s just different than the horror movie that I think a lot of people were expecting, myself included. Whereas “Get Out” is pretty self-explanatory in its themes about race, “Us” plays with a lot of big ideas that don’t immediately seem to fit together. There are themes of religion, race, duality, free will, all told through the story of underground mazes, cloning experiments, nationwide hand-holding, the smooth flow of “Loonies”… “What does I got five on it mean?” “It’s about drugs” … and rabbits. A whole lot of rabbits. Now, when I say it’s a hard movie, I mean that it’s one that requires a lot of thought, and even some research to really appreciate and understand. And because it has this big twist and really explanatory monologue at the very end, I think a lot of people walk out of this assuming that they got it just because they got the surface level information about a girl who was swapped with her soulless double, but there is so much more here. The horror of this movie isn’t The Tethered and their aggressive use of scissors. It’s not even how creepy, mildly racist, fun houses on the strands of tourist beaches lead to underground testing facilities. No, ‘Us’ is really about the failure of the American Dream. What you can see throughout the movie are glimpses of the perfect American life, where all the characters seem to be doing great, but all of these moments are actually hollow, meaningless, or just weirdly miss the mark in some way. And by the end, it’s not the clones that are killing us, it’s America. It’s us- the U.S. Let’s look at the facts. What first clued me in that this is the direction the film was headed was a really odd line, during the first encounter with The Tethered. The doppelgangers have broken into the lake house of the Wilsons, and have everyone seated for a good old story time but when the family’s father, Gabe, asks The Tethered, “Who are you?”, The response is one that catches everyone off guard, both in the movie, and out in the theater, Not that these are twins, not that they’re The Tethered, not even that they’re shadows, or a weird government science experiment gone wrong, No, the response is “We’re Americans” We’re Americans. It’s weird, right? And not like random weird, This line is clearly weird with a purpose. Any time a character sits down the villain and says, “What are you?” You know that the response is gonna be important. And it got me thinking. And also got me buying another ticket to watch it from the beginning with this new context. And looking all the way through the film from start to finish, it becomes clear that we see the theme of America and the American Dream play an oddly important role throughout all the events of the film. The opening seconds of the movie are spent telling us some random facts about underground tunnels. Apparently miles of tunnels crisscross underneath the United States that are now abandoned, empty and forgotten. Now, why tell us this? Especially as the very first thing we see as a part of this movie? I mean, sure, the ending takes place in one of those tunnels, but that seems like overkill to start the movie off on something that barely pays off, and no one would really question if it wasn’t there. Instead, I think the reason why is that it sets up the American Dream theme immediately. America, the country, is often considered superficial figuratively, but also, America, the country is superficial literally. There is nothing under the surface. It’s empty. It’s hollow. All America is, is on the surface, and underneath are just a bunch of abandoned tunnels filled with nothing. You think that’s a stretch? Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you, it seems like a pretty big leap to make, but let’s look at another key element of the movie: the Hands Across America campaign. Less than two minutes into the film, we see a commercial for this thing, and then it’s the final shot of the movie, with thousands of Tethered joining hands once they kill off their surface-dwelling counterpart You might not be familiar with it, but Hands Across America took place in 1986, and involved 15 minutes of people holding hands across the country to raise money to “cure homelessness and hunger”. It happened at the height of the Reagan era, which was a time marked by a lot of national growth and an 80’s-tastic feeling of positivity on one hand, but also blind unchecked capitalism and business wheeling and dealing on the other, and nothing shows this better than Hands Across America. The event itself managed to raise a massive amount of money: 32 million dollars. Which is great, especially when it’s back in the 1980’s, until you consider that the company that ran this thing paid out 17 million of those dollars to pay its own bills, and when it comes to charitable events, any “administration fees” over 20% are considered to be pretty darn egregious, so the homeless saw much less of that total amount than it initially seemed. So already in this opening moment, we see what appears to be a great moment of “Yeah! America uniting for change!” and it’s this grand gesture that looks awesome on the outside, is emotionally moving, but is already questionable what’s under the surface. It looked great on the surface, but when it came to actual substance, it, once again, is empty. But okay, we need to move on from the opening scenes to the actual movie. Fast forward to the present day version of our protagonist Adelaide and her family, and you see they are full of clichés of the perfect American life… …or, more accurately, almost the perfect American life. Jordan Peele has chosen to include a bunch of symbols that show the failure or letdown of the American Dream: Throughout the movie, Gabe wears a Howard University sweatshirt, which, if you aren’t familiar, is a historically black college, along with other high-end universities like Hampton and the Tuskegee Institute. These schools are all part of the black Ivy League, a group of prestigious schools that were specifically available to African Americans back when segregation was still a thing. So, on one hand, they represent what every American dreams of: going to a good college, the Ivy League, but the other hand is that it’s a group of schools that specifically came out of segregation. A dark spot on America’s past, and part of a long history of racial inequality. For a period of time, these schools were also considered to be the schools that black students could go to, that would qualify them for careers that were traditionally considered “beyond the reach” of African Americans at the time; jobs only available to upper-middle class white people. Again, the movie highlights this desire we all have to go to an amazing school like Howard, but the full context of historically black colleges also refers to a time when black students were considered second-class. It’s the American Dream again, but twisted, corrupted. And since we’re talking about Gabe, let’s also talk about Gabe’s boat. Throughout the movie, we see a lot of characters that have a lot of really nice stuff. Having nice stuff is something we all want, and something people are currently obsessed with, from flex culture to Yeezys. But here, we see that it’s not quite working the way that everyone hopes. If you’re a middle-class person in the US, there’s a good chance that your dad dreamed of buying a boat at some point or another. It is the ultimate symbol of expendable income: something purely for relaxation that costs a lot to maintain and that you use, like, once a year. And here Gabe is, achieving the dream, checking off the “I’m on a boat” box, but, the boat doesn’t work. It turns off at random, it pulls to the left. “It veers a little to the left, so you gotta hold on to it, It’s the American Dream in name, but in substance it’s empty. Not only is the boat not all it’s cracked up to be, it’s not just the boat, you also have to have all the stuff that goes with it. It’s never enough to have what you have, you always need to have more. The boat is certainly the most prominent example, but you also see it when Gabe talks about the Tylers’ car, “You saw their new car, right?” And their backup generator. The American dream isn’t a destination. It’s just constantly trying to get more than you already have, and constantly being dissatisfied by what you do have. Speaking of all that stuff, after seeing the Tylers literally die all over their beautiful house, Gabe still sees all the stuff as the thing that’s going to protect him. “We got everything we need here; food, water, backup generator.” Materialism is the shield, it’s the solution because it’s always the solution in America. Rewind back to the first home invasion scene: Gabe’s tactic, again, is the stuff, to keep offering The Tethered more material goods as the thing to make them go away, a direct nod to the perceived power of capitalism in making your problems go away. “We don’t have anything here.” “This is our summer home.” Come on man, this is not the time for that sort of flex! Gabe follows that up by offering the boat, to empty his bank account. The irony here is that all that stuff isn’t protecting anyone, but it is killing everyone. Did you notice that throughout the movie, even though scissors are the main weapon, they rarely are the thing that kills anyone? At least, onscreen. After Tethered Adelaide notes that “we’re Americans”, people aren’t using knives and guns. They’re using symbols of the American upper middle class. During the opening attack, Gabe wields the great American pastime of a baseball bat. Death #1, Gabe kills Abraham with the new boat. Zora kills one Tethered Tyler twin and almost the other with a golf putter. Death #3, Gabe kills Tethered Josh with the flare gun from the boat. The Amazon Alexa fails to call the police, leading to more death, Jason kills Tethered Kitty with a mounted rock, “They’re minerals!” “I’ve got some geodes coming that are very delicate!” and Death #5, Zora kills Umbrae with a high-end white Land Rover. These deaths literally and figuratively beat the characters over the head, with the idea that their stuff isn’t doing good in the world, it’s a weapon. It also shows that at the end of the day, we’re all dying to this materialism, and slowly being killed by our desire for more stuff. Even Tethered Kitty and Josh can’t resist the pull of capitalism: they put on the bathrobe, they put on makeup, they even try a little DIY plastic surgery in pursuit of this beautiful life. that their counterparts, the real surface Tylers had. They think that it’ll be the thing that makes them happy, that gives them substance, it’s all the soft things that they grew up wanting but never had. and the irony is, it’s not gonna make them happy, because this is America. She puts on the makeup, it makes her happy for a second, but then she starts seeing imperfections and immediately starts slicing into her face. You continue to see how futile this American life is when the families hit the beach, and everything ain’t so perfect. Gabe and Josh spend their entire time there comparing stuff, showing very clearly that even if you’re doing well, in America, you’ll still always be comparing it to the people around you, and you’re not doing good enough. Even those who are successful aren’t happy. There’s Kitty, the perfect suburban mom of two who is immediately self-medicating with alcohol… “Gotta give my wife her medicine.” …to numb her from the marriage to a guy who cares more about his stuff than her, who doesn’t take her fear seriously when she hears noises outside their house. “I think about murdering him sometimes.” She might have a nice life, but it’s not good enough, which is why she’s been getting plastic surgery, “Did you get something done?” “Just like an itsy bitsy little thing.” and wishes she’d become an actress, instead of having kids. “I think I could’ve been a movie star.” “I went to Stella Adler.” This is the real picture of the American Dream. It isn’t about having everything you want and being happy, It’s about having the appearance of having everything you want, but not ever actually being satisfied with any of it. All the stuff, the boats, the silicone noses. They’re all empty. Maybe they used to have meaning, but now, they’re just superficial symbols. For proof that this is exactly what Jordan Peele wanted, look no further than the Tyler twins. You see the one who’s wearing a “Black Flag” t-shirt? I thought it was a weird detail, especially when you consider that the carnival worker at the beginning of the movie is wearing one too. Clearly, it’s meant to mean something. Now, he’s wearing it in 1986, when the band “Black Flag” was at their peak, and were known for founding the West Coast punk rock counterculture revolution. They were considered really subversive in their day. But then you fast forward to now, when Lindsey Tyler’s wearing it here, and it’s not because she’s hardcore or subversive. I mean, she’s a blonde teen who’s doing gymnastics at the beach. She’s not going counter to anything. She’s actually the peak of American cultural conformity, where this edgy idea of a renegade band called Black Flag has been appropriated into American tween materialism. I mean, she is literally a twin who is wearing something that stands for lack of conformity! You don’t get more on the nose than that. Personally, it’s my favorite symbol in the entire film. I think it’s brilliant. She’s a twin! She’s literally a copy of someone else!! And finally, in the closing sequence, we get our last and maybe most damning piece of evidence, for this commentary on America: we finally get the showdown between Adelaide and her Tethered in the tunnels, and it’s finally revealed- one more spoiler alert- that Tethered Adelaide is actually the one that we’ve been hoping to survive the entire time. They switched as little kids, and we’ve been seeing the tethered version the entire film! Now, I’ve seen a lot of viewers actually complain about this twist, citing the fact that it would have been more fun to leave it ambiguous, and not explicitly tell us that they’d been switched. It wasn’t my favorite twist either, but that’s the thing: for this theory to work, you have to know it explicitly. The point isn’t that there’s this big twist and, “Whoa! Adelaide isn’t who she thought she was!” and it completely changes everything we saw before, the whole point is that for the entire movie, we couldn’t tell the difference. And neither could anyone else around her. I mean, think about that. Our society is so shallow and vapid and surface-level, that an entire person got replaced by a copy, a clone, a science experiment that the movie explicitly tells us has no soul, and no one skipped a beat. No one could tell the difference. As long as it looked the same on the outside, it didn’t matter what was on the inside. Like Adelaide says at the end of the movie to her son Jason, “It’s gonna be just like it was before.” Nothing is gonna change. We’re going to keep on pursuing this empty life. It doesn’t matter who was a soulless tethered person and who was the original. And yeah, Jason knows that his mom is really the tethered version of Adelaide, but do we see him making a big deal out of it? No, just the opposite. He ignores it, accepts it. He puts on his mask, his facade, and he carries on. We pan across suburbia, and everyone is dead. White, black, doesn’t matter. The American Dream didn’t save anyone. We close on a shot of Hands Across America. At the end of the day, you may or may not agree with that message. You may have a boat and think it’s awesome. Heck, I think a boat sounds amazing. But this is what I think Jordan Peele was trying to say, with all of those crazy mixed-up symbols used throughout the movie. I’m writing this the day after the movie came out, by the way, after having watched it 3 times in the theater, so maybe everyone already knows all this? Maybe it’s all been picked to death, I don’t know. These videos take way too long to make, so forgive me if all this stuff has been covered to death. I just thought it was an interesting movie to discuss, one that seems to explain a lot, but still leaves some of the biggest mysteries for us to discover on our own. Those are some of the most exciting movies to do episodes on, because it means never-ending theories! Film Theories! Aaaaannndddd…. Oh, did you notice the recurring themes of red, white, and blue? Or how Adelaide starts white, but then slowly becomes more red as the movie goes on? The fake spider and the real spider? Or how rabbits are completely useless creatures with no real purpose? Aargh! I just really like this movie and want to keep talking about it, okay? It’s worth seeing so you can come up with your own theories. You know what is also worth doing? Subscribing to the channel, because this level of deep analysis just doesn’t really exist online all that much anymore D: It’s a culture of “Move on to the next big headline!”, so if you want thoughtful discussion and analysis of films, this is a great channel to find it on. Subscribe, we got more horror movie episodes coming, I promise. (Finally) Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a lot of superhero stuff I gotta hop over and cover. (nevermind) “Shazam!”, “Endgame”… so many movies!!