What's Wrong with 'Us'?
Us is a really good movie. It has a strong visual language, crystal clear direction, and one of the most entertaining, original premises in a film this year. But...that’s it.
Us really struggles in three major categories: character, structure, and scope. After a brilliantly chilling prologue, the film drops us into the lives of our core family of characters, the Wilsons, as they make their way to their summer home in Santa Cruz. Immediately, the cracks start to show. Adelaide’s (Lupita Nyong’o) husband Gabe (Winston Duke) makes three corny dad jokes in a row: one in the car, one outside the car, and one in the house. It’s weirdly repetitive, and that’s when I started to really pay attention to our characters.
See, none of the film’s main characters are very specific. I mean, what motivates these characters? What does Adelaide want (other than to go home)? What does Gabe want (other than to have a fun vacation)? The kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are even more cliché, fitting into these narrow boxes of teenage character traits; she’s good at track, but she doesn’t want to run. He likes to pull pranks on his sister, and likes...fire? Magic? These aren’t three-dimensional characters. They exist to move the plot along, and other than Adelaide, none of their arcs get proper resolutions And from here, we come to the second problem with Us: structure.
Act One of a film normally starts by introducing the audience to the protagonist/secondary characters, and introduces us to their ordinary world before moving the story along. Us feels like it just drops the audience into the middle of the act. We don’t really have any time with these characters, and we don’t know how this trip to their summer home is any different from their normal lives. It means that the symptoms of Adelaide’s PTSD are very vague, and it means we don’t really get to understand or empathize with our leads. I have a feeling that Us was originally supposed to start at the Wilson’s home before they go on vacation. I think there’s probably five-to-ten minutes of Us sitting on the cutting room floor somewhere, because otherwise, the movie would take half-an-hour to really get going. But those cuts resulted in us getting characters we don’t really know anything about, and that’s just frustrating. Gabe, Jason, and Zora kinda fall off the face of the Earth in the third act too, their arcs unresolved, but what really pulls everything apart is the scope of the film.
So, you know that everyone has a clone of themselves wandering about called “the Tethered”: creepy, red jumpsuit-wearing, scissor-wielding, murdery clones. They’re targeting their matches and killing them so that they can be “Untethered”. The explanation for all of this, as we discover, is that the Tethered were clones created underground by the US Government (?) to...control the public (?), but then the government abandoned them, and Adelaide’s clone Red organizes an uprising so that the Tethered can take their place on the surface, where they form a human chain across the country, a clear evocation of the Hands Across America Benefit from the 80s, an ad for which opened the film. It’s also revealed that Adelaide and Red switched places as children, when they met in the hall of mirrors during the film’s prologue. Did that sound messy? Because it was messy and hard to digest in the theater, and I still can’t fully grasp it now. This is Peele’s first film to take on a national scale, and it is clearly where the most questions are raised and unanswered. Why did the Tethered come out now? How did they all communicate? And how would the Tethered even be able to control the public?
All of these questions and flaws tie back into the film’s issues with structure and character. Because the film’s scope is so big, we don’t get to focus as much on our characters, who we care infinitely more about. It means that valuable character content gets cut, and the audience is left satisfied, but confused. And that’s frustrating. Us is a fun movie to watch, and its competently made, but it could be so much more than the some of its parts if it was just a little more focused. If it had the patience and nuance of Get Out, it probably would’ve been better.