An Analysis of Jordan Peele's "Us"

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*NOTE* This was a final essay that I wrote for my college Media Criticism course. I figured that I would just post the whole thing here because I haven't posted anything in a long time.

*THIS POST CONTAINS MANY SPOILERS FOR THE MOVIE. If you haven't watched the film, I highly advise you to do so. It's amazing in my opinion.*

When Jordan Peele released his debut film “Get Out” in 2017, nobody could have foreseen that the career comedian and sketch comedy veteran would make such a fruitful transition into the horror film genre with his directorial debut. Peele, however, defied all expectations as “Get Out” instantly became a massive critical and commercial success, went on to be one of the most discussed and most notable films of the year, and it officially launched Peele as rising star director in Hollywood. The film seamlessly blended a creepy and foreboding atmosphere with elements of dark comedy and satire that deconstructed the issues regarding race relations in our modern society. After having a strong start to his new career, Peele had pressure to release a quality follow up to his debut feature. And he certainly delivered with the recently released film “Us” in 2019. While “Get Out” fell more into the thriller and dark comedy genres, “Us” is much more of an overt horror film that is loaded with gore and downright disturbing ideas and imagery without the tangible irony and satire that his previous film got across. The film is extremely ambitious in terms of its premise, its themes, and its execution. “Us” revolves an African-American family (made up of mother Adelaide, her husband Gabe, and her two children Jason and Zora) travelling to Santa Cruz, California for a vacation when they are confronted by dangerous and vengeful doppelgangers of themselves, with Adelaide having a very crucial past connection with her doppelganger counterpart. “Us” is an intentionally confusing movie that forces the viewer to be attentive and interpret different elements for themselves. Jordan Peele does not hold the audience’s hand and instead gives them a vitriolic and challenging filmgoing experience that hopes to create a lengthy conversation from those who watch it. “Us” is the epitome of a film that is more of an “experience” than a two-hour long fictional distraction. It asks important questions about the human spirit and challenges the audience to perform some introspection and search for their own answers within. As a result, there are various methods of analyzing this film, and the one method of analyzing that stuck out to me immediately was media’s construction of identity. The movie is filled with poignant and often disturbing messages as it portrays its characters as confused and horrified when forced to confront a malevolent mirror image of themselves. Each of us must fight our own personal battles everyday and Peele masterfully takes that inner conflict and brings it into a much more horrifying physical representation that rocks me to my very core. Jordan Peele’s intriguing film ‘Us’ formulates the valuable insight through various twists and turns that each of us at many times can be our own worst enemy.

As human beings, we all want to feel special. We all want to stand out in our own unique way and exert some individualism that proves we are not a mindless follower in the pack of society. By logical real-world standards, each of us are special. No human being on the planet is exactly the same. If we measure every defining quality of a person such as their physical appearance, voice, personality, relationships, thoughts, skills, intelligence, and memories, no two people will be an exact match with one another. Still, this is exactly what makes the themes of “Us” and the doppelgangers so chilling. We are so used to living our own lives through a one-way mirror with our own eyes, that it would be completely strange and frightening to see ourselves from another perspective. That is exactly what is so terrifying for the film’s family protagonists. They see copies of themselves staring into their souls, and are faced with an enormous physical and existential threat. Their sense of feeling special has been taken away from them as their evil counterparts aim to usurp their identity and continue living their lives in their place. While the doppelgangers in “Us” match their counterparts in terms of their physical appearance, they were formed from an entirely different environment and have lived in an entirely different world for their entire existence until the events of the film. These doppelgangers (who in the film are identified as “the Tethered”) were a failed government project that was created with the purpose of taking control of the masses by creating a clone of everyone in America. When the experiment failed, the Tethered were abandoned in underground tunnel systems and had a hopeless existence mindlessly copying the actions of their surface-level counterparts for generations; including breeding with the same people that their surface dwellers bred with. Despite having the exact physical features of their surface counterparts, they do not know what life is actually like in the “real world”, they are uneducated and cannot speak, and they have accepted their bleak existence as underground zombies as their reality. The only exception to this rule is revealed at the film’s conclusion in the form of a shocking, demented, yet thought-provoking and intriguing twist. The film reveals in its final minutes that the two versions of the film’s mother character Adelaide had been switched when she was a little girl. The protagonist Adelaide was originally born underground as a Tethered and took the place of the “real” Adelaide (who is referred to as “Red” in the film) when they ran into one another when they were children. One had to learn all about life on the surface while her other half was forced into an underground Hell for thirty years. The theme that certain parts of ourselves can corrupt and attack other parts of ourselves is very apparent throughout the film in the form of the “evil” doppelgangers attacking our “good” protagonists. The main conflict of the film, along with the disturbing twist that Adelaide knew what was happening the entire time, perfectly exemplify how we are at a constant battle with ourselves and sometimes we are our own worst enemy. We have the most power over our own lives and sometimes we stop ourselves from living the best lives we can live, and Jordan Peele physically illustrates this inner conflict with our identities in such a thrilling, scary, yet intriguing and effective manner with “Us”.

“Us” is a film that is infused with various forms of symbolism, pop culture references, and deeper meanings that reside beneath its slasher film exterior. Jordan Peele packs in references to other horror films such as “The Shining” and “Jaws” both as a form of homage as well as to form a connection with the film’s overall plot. There are several references to legendary pop star Michael Jackson; one notable example being that the young Adelaide wearing a “Thriller” T-shirt connects with the zombie-like lifestyle of the Tethered. Peele had stated that Jackson, with his multifaceted public persona that was filled with so much talent and various controversies, was “the patron saint of duality”. The theme of duality is even apparent with the Tethered’s weapon choice of scissors, a symmetrical item whose two halves form one dangerous whole. Semiotics are interpolated throughout the film’s entire runtime and it appears that every single frame can be interpreted beyond its face value. Peele is encouraging his audience to use their brains and analyze his film as a work of art as opposed to just having some cheap thrills for two hours, and his desire to challenge moviegoers is very commendable and speaks to the idea that films are just as valid form of art as any painting or sculpture in a museum. “Us” is a film that can be enjoyed on a surface horror film level, but it can also be greatly interpreted through its various uses of symbolism and the ambiguity of its plot. It is a film that allows the viewer to create and interpret their own meaning out of the madness and chaos they see on screen. And in a film that relies so heavily upon the usage of semiotics, there can be some overlap with other theories of media criticism. One of the film’s most important plot elements can be interpreted using class theory.

“Red” lived on the surface for the first ~10 years of her life until she was forced underground by her other half, and she spent the remaining years of her existence in a terrible lifestyle. Nobody on the top knew that she existed and her other half stole the life that she should have lived. The frustration and torture that she underwent for decades allowed her to formulate an elaborate revenge plot to let the entire world know that the Tethered exist by terrorizing and attacking the privileged people that live on the surface. At the same time, they join hands in across the globe as a show of strength and intimidation but to also show unity and pride of who they are. There is a deeper societal class-based meaning that Jordan Peele develops through this power struggle between the people on top and the people on the bottom in society. In many respects, the surface people live their lives with excess and privilege in the same way that people in the top 1% of wealth would live. They are blissfully unaware of the people beneath them and are not knowledgeable to the horrors and struggles that these lower class people have been forced to live with for generations. The Tethered in the film, similar to the real-life lower classes, have been forced to live like zombies in terrible living conditions, have been given zero educational opportunities and proper resources to live fruitful lives, while nobody acknowledges their existence due to past mistakes made by the government. Jordan Peele manages to subtly portray and critique the unfortunate economic system that the United States has had in place for generations with this utilization of science fiction elements in his themes and story. “Red”’s plan of getting the Tethered out of the tunnel and joining hands across the country was formed largely by one of the last images that she saw before she was kidnapped and forced underground. The original “Hands Across America” movement was carried out in 1986 as a charity movement that involved millions of Americans holding hands for fifteen minutes in order to fight hunger, help those in poverty, and push for other charitable causes. This movement was quite inspiring to the young “Red” as it showed that people of all walks of life can come together for the right causes and could show unity throughout the country. However, she interpreted it as a show of strength by the people with the most power and privilege in society and she uses the exact method to showcase how the Tethered have finally become the stronger half of the whole, and how they are finally able to live the lives that they deserve to live. This final image that the young “Red” saw on her TV went on to form her entire way of thinking while living decades of her life in a Hellish underground environment goes to prove how ideas that we view in the media have the potential to form our identities. And in quite fitting fashion, the image of millions of people holding hands across the country is the final image that we see in the film, coming full circle from the film’s prologue. “Us” is structured very heavily around the idea of our identities being formed by the environment and culture that we live in, and Jordan Peele utilizes the method of semiotics to make a real world comparison of social class critiques with the comparison between the surface people’s lifestyle and the Tethered’s lifestyle. “Us” is a film that can be analyzed on a variety of levels due to is rampant use of symbolism, and it created truly visceral filmgoing experience while watching it as well as thinking and discussing it afterwards.

Jordan Peele’s “Us” is a film that seems like it was made to be discussed by college classes such as this. It is a horror film that bends and redefines its genre in a similar manner to Peele’s other work by using its thrilling elements of science fiction to make important statements about the real world that we reside in. It explores the ideas of identity and the self with tact and great care by capturing the themes of duality throughout its runtime, and its various uses of semiotics make it an entertaining viewing experience on an intellectual level. Any horror movie can make money and scare you by just showing a surplus of gore, a frightening antagonist, and having a creepy environment. However, Jordan Peele’s writing is so multi-layered and well-rounded, and because of this, “Us” is a film that becomes more frightening when thinking about it after watching it due to the various real-world and introspective parallels that are presented during its two hour runtime. “Us” is a film that challenges its audience to look inward while using symbolism to take on the issues that we face as a society on a daily basis, and as a result, I view it as a modern horror classic and I encourage anyone to sit down and watch it for themselves. Because if there is one universal theme and message that Jordan Peele is attempting to get across with this film, it is how there is much more about “us” as a species than meets the eye.

Comments

Something kept me from loving this movie. I think Filmento's video essay explains it verywelll. - Tia-Harribel