Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Directed by Jordan Peele
Written by Jordan Peele
Produced by Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Cinematography by Mike Gioulakis
Edited by Nicholas Monsour
Music by Michael Abels
The gross, disgusting, overly-violent, clunky, stilted, cliched and generally depressing “Us,” Jordan Peele’s disappointing follow-up to his thoughtful, reflective, insightful, well-nuanced, well-thought-out and intelligent “Get Out” from 2017, is a huge step backward for Peele. “Us is one of those modern-day horror films that is, in essence, pretty much nothing more than one long, exaggerated, drawn-out—and unoriginal and boring—cat-and-mouse chase game—with a quick, added-on attempted explanation at a story and back story. However, that story explanation—and it’s not a very good one—occurs too late, and it’s much too little to save the movie. “Us” represents everything that’s entirely wrong with many modern-day horror movies—mainly that it’s unoriginal, gross, way too violent, disturbing in a bad way, offensive in bad ways (in this particular case, kids participating in ugly, bloody violence, which is just horrendous), and just plain not that good.
This coming weekend, March 22-24, 2019, go see “Captain Marvel,” “The Aftermath”–an excellent World War II period historical drama with a stand-out performance by Keira Knightley–or “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.” Believe it—you’ll have a much better time at the movies this weekend than struggling through the struggling and downer and mean-spirited “Us.”
The problems with “Us” are many, multi-layered and present in every aspect of the film—production, direction, writing and acting. There’s no standout element in any of these areas in the movie.
First, the main problem starts with, as noted, one of those main problems with too many dumb modern-day horror movies—the violence. There simply was no reason—none—for the stomach-churning, excessively-bloody violence that permeates “Us”—the movie actually would have made its point much better, resonated better and come across in general better without the blood-drenched violence, which pulls the movie straight downhill. And, in general, if Peele had been thinking and had toned the violence way down—even to the level of PG-13 or even PG—and had not succumbed to the bizarre aspects of children participating in bloody violence and had made the violence more suggestive rather than more graphic and gratuitous, he may have been able to save some aspects of the movie, or at least he would have been able to make the movie more approachable and open to more people.
Second, however, even if the violence was toned down, the movie still suffers from a stilted, clunky, meandering and scattershot script; a shaky and uninspired and confusing and unclear overall story; leaden and clunky dialogue; story and plot and characterization misfires and mistakes; and just general plot and subplot writing deficiencies. The story, plot, script and dialogue are all a bit of a mess, these elements seem shaky and confusing, and the movie stumbles along without any satisfying conclusion or resolution to the overall story and back story. It’s almost as if Peele had some semblance of an idea, but he didn’t have the chops to fully elaborate on that idea and turn that idea into a fully-realized, feature-length film—he definitely needed some assistance with the story, plot and dialogue, and this is one of those instances where a team of script doctors was sorely needed, and some outside help would have greatly helped this movie.
Third, Peele’s direction through much of the movie seems confused—he doesn’t seem to be able to fully meld the horror, scare, suspense, supernatural, fantasy and comedic elements that are present in the script. The comedic references don’t work, because they occur amid that horrendous, bloody, gross violence, and thus the comedy is over-shadowed by the violence, which tends to mute the comedy and make it ridiculous. The horror is so horrific, it’s unpleasant to watch, thus alienating the viewer from the main action much of the time. And, again, the real explanation for the horror, fantasy and supernatural aspects that strive to be the backbone and foundation of the story are shaky, arrive too late, and it just doesn’t hold up, story-wise. Thus, again, the movie reverts to simply being a cat-and-mouse game in houses, cars, boats, forests, beaches, boardwalks and underground, subterranean areas. The movie seems overwhelmed by monsters chasing people, people chasing monsters, monsters killing people and people killing monsters for much of the movie’s running time. And besides the inherent numbness of this, much of it’s not even that original, different or unique—we’ve seen this all before, too many times.
Fourth, the production overall seems scattershot, as if the filmmakers suddenly realized about twenty pages into the script that they didn’t have a good film, didn’t know how to salvage that script, and instead just went on ahead with the cut-rate chases, cat-and-mouse games, killings, stabbings, violence and cheap scares and thrills. And the settings and scenes are pedestrian, too—a few beach houses, some woods, some streets, a beach and that underground residence where the monsters live. The movie needed to move out of this confined space to present a wider, more expansive milieu—and to present a wider, over-riding, more universal aspect of what is, essentially, action that focuses on just two families. The reason that this needed to be expanded is that the core action appeared to be part of a broader, over-riding, nationwide or perhaps even worldwide phenomenon—but except for a handful of too-quick television reports, the movie doesn’t present that over-arching national or international aspect too well. There is a shot at the very end of the movie to suggest this broader aspect—but a final shot to attempt this view is, again, too little too late.
Fifth, the acting is okay, but it’s just okay, nothing more. When a faulty, scattershot script doesn’t give the actors much to do, and there’s not enough intelligent, probing dialogue, and much of the script and story is simply running, chasing and violently killing, well, that doesn’t give the actors much ammunition for strong acting performances. Each actor needed better action, better interactions, better business—and better dialogue. Except for maybe two or three short monologues, the dialogue is horribly bare, stripped-down, and sorely lacking in insight, introspection, analysis or even depth and intelligence. The actors should not take the blame, though—they are all working hard and well, but they are constrained by the lackluster script, story and direction.
Thus, “Us” stumbles in all of the major areas of production, direction, writing and acting. Most of the blame should be centered on Peele, but filmgoers should notice that, alas, Jason Blum is—unfortunately—one of the producers of this movie. Blum deserves much of the blame, too. While Jason Blum is to be praised and credited and positively cited for his ability to make and produce horror films at low budgets that return huge profits at the box office, thus ensuring success for a stream of producers, directors, writers and actors, there’s been a downside and backlash to some of this success, too. That downside is that many of Blum’s films are, at best, just average; they all contain similar filmic elements that were cliched about fifteen or twenty years ago; they’re sorely lacking in quality story, script, plot and characterization elements (just like with “Us”); the acting’s not always the greatest; and, at times, they’re way too graphically violent. In general, many of the horror and supernatural films from Blum and his Blumhouse Productions production company are simply average, or, at time, below average popcorn movies.
Horror, fantasy, supernatural and paranormal movie filmmakers like Blum, Eli Roth and now, at least with “Us,” Jordan Peele, need to realize that the best and better horror films have, alongside the thrills, chills, scares and shock scenes: an intelligent story and back story with real, deep, smart meaning, messages, morals and themes that stand out over and above the thrills and chills (much like in “Get Out”); a LACK of violence—because the better horror movies don’t necessarily need graphic violence to tell the story or to scare people; genuinely likeable characters and heroes that audiences can sympathize with and like and care about—because the horror and suspense are increased when heroes and likeable people are placed in scary situations; that, often, what’s scarier is what is suggested and not seen; that, often, what’s scarier is what is suggested and not graphically presented; that the dialogue and story can indeed be smart, intelligent and insightful alongside the horror; that there can indeed be dramatic elements, scenes, people and aspects—not just cheap thrills and scares—in a horror story; and that basic quality production design executed at the same high level as a well-done drama, tragedy, comedy, action-adventure, Western or spy or any-other-genre film can co-exist within the horror world. Yet, time and again, we see modern-day horror films that tread over the same tired territory, giving the people the same scares and blood-and-guts time and again, until the movies all bleed and ooze together into some unrecognizable blob of fright—much like the creatures that are presented in those films.
On the cliché front—and “Us” is just as guilty for including these elements—there should be no more characters walking, leaning, walking or running as if their limbs are twisted out of their joints or arthritic—no more of these jerky, head-tilting, arm-twisting, leg-twisting, spider-crawling, wall-crawling, ceiling-crawling, crouching, flying, running fast monsters. Enough. It seems every modern-day horror movies has its monsters moving, crawling, walking and running in the same way—and it’s cliched. It’s done, over-done, and needs to be laid to rest. Second, enough of the bloody violence—it’s just sickening. More filmmakers seem to be so thrilled with what computer and digital and green-screen and animation special effects can do with blood and guts and killings, it seems like in every bad horror movie, the filmmakers are just trying their best to present the grossest, vilest, most sickening and disgusting scenes of violence. Well, as noted, that’s not true filmmaking—it’s just childishly playing around with special effects. Third, enough of the cat-and-mouse chases—these walking, running, chasing through dark hallways, rooms, buildings, forests, woods and wherever were cliched, oh, about seventy years ago—yes, seventy years ago. Enough with the chases—it’s just not scary anymore. Fourth—no more chases through haunted attractions. Again, this cheap gimmick—people being chased through haunted houses, beach horror attractions, Halloween attractions, scare attractions such as these—has been over-done and over-used in so many horror and comedy movies, well, it’s done, too. “Zombieland”—a classic, wonderful satire, a great satire that did indeed beautifully meld comedy and horror—parodied this cliché perfectly with an absolutely hilarious sequence in which Jesse Eisenberg’s character was chased by zombies through—an amusement park haunted scare attraction. However, that movie should have spelled the end to this cliché, and no horror or supernatural movie made after “Zombieland” should have included this cliché. Fifth, enough with the sickening, insane use of kids in graphically violent scenes—there’s no reason for this, it’s not pleasant, and it’s just jarring to the point of not being fun, interesting or entertaining. Finally, no more of this jarring, unmelodic, unmemorable, unharmonic, unrhythmic, unrelenting, and completely unbearable wall-of-irritating-noise music scores that sound not so much like music, but like a day’s recording of the daily business at a scrap metal junk yard. A musical score should sound, well, like music.
On that second-to-last point in the preceding list—“Us,” for some reason, has two young kid characters not just present in scenes of graphic violence, but they are participating in the graphic violence. In “Us,” a young girl monster just stabs a man for no clear reason on a street; young kid monsters regularly kill people; two young teenage girls are savagely, brutally murdered; two teenage girl monsters kill people and are killed; a young boy monster actually steps into a fire and is burned to death; a young boy bashes a monster’s head with a stone decoration. This is just stomach-churning, unpleasantly disturbing, sick—and wholly unnecessary to the story of “Us.” The movie could have completely—100 percent—eliminated these weird scenes of violence involving kids—and that, too, would have somewhat helped to make the film better.
Additionally, along these same lines, “Us” involves some similarly odd, weird script missteps that don’t seem to have a clear point or purpose—and come across just as cheap gimmicks—again, a major script misstep. In one particularly awful violent scene, a family is violently murdered—stabbed horribly—while the Beach Boys’ classic surf rock standard “Good Vibrations” plays in the background. Why? There is no reason. Why on earth would Peele include this great song—a happy, fun, upbeat, positive song that is meant to instill nothing but happiness—in a scene of gross, senseless violence? It makes no sense, and the scene comes across more as one huge insult to the Beach Boys and the writers of “Good Vibrations.” In another scene, a character references John Hughes’ classic “Home Alone,” and a character strikes down the reference—it’s meant to be comedic, yes—but, again, the joke doesn’t work, and all the brain can summon is, again, why is such a positive, fun, classic kids’ film even mentioned in this bloodfest horrorshow? The reference seems out of place, and an insult to that great movie!
“Us” attempts to tell a supernatural story about a family of four—a mother, father, son and daughter—who are attacked during a beach vacation by their doppelgangers—evil monsters who are somehow completely identical versions of the family—yet deranged, violent, speechless, evil and murderous versions of the family. That family’s friends at another beach house are also attacked by their doppelgangers—and those doppelgangers are similarly deranged, violent and murderous. And, as it turns out, an entire race of supernatural, long-hidden race of doppelgangers have decided that it’s time to appear on Earth’s surface and kill off their early counterparts and take over the world. The doppelgangers—except for one—don’t speak, they all walk and run and crouch in that cliched jerky set of movements, they don’t seem to mind killing people, and they seem to thrive on blood lust, stabbing, murder, fire, destruction and violence. And they also seem to want to stand on Earth and hold hands like the mid-80s Hands Across America. And, yet again, that reference doesn’t work in “Us,” either—Hands Across America was a positive, productive, genuinely positive effort to promote unity and fight hunger, poverty and homelessness in America. Why on Earth would Peele use this positive event in connection with a bunch of bloodthirsty, murderous monsters? This connection, alas, also doesn’t work—and the weird reference to Hands Across America comes across as insult to all of the hard work and positivity that went into that effort.
Peele attempts some type of explanation for the doppelgangers’ behavior literally at the end of the movie, but, as noted, it’s all too little, too late, and it’s not enough to save this failed movie. And, on top of everything else, Peeple throws in a poorly-conceived plot twist in the third act that completely destroys any element of hope that the movie had—instead, that plot twist just completely destroys everything that came before it, and wipes out the basic story structure.
Here’s what anyone—producers, directors, writers, actors–striving to make a modern-day horror, supernatural or paranormal movie or television show needs to do, going forward: Sit down in a screening room, watch several of the classic, non-bloody, elegant, well-made horror classics (a strong list can be provided from this quarter, gratis) for about, oh, twenty-four hours, and then retreat somewhere comfortable and filmically, academically, intelligently dissect, analyze, discuss and think about these films, and what made them so great and so appealing to audiences. Next—make films in that mode, without the senseless graphic violence. It shouldn’t be that difficult.
And here’s a challenge to Blum and Peele: Here’s what both of them should do next in film: Their next films should have absolutely nothing—zero—do with horror, fantasy, science fiction, the supernatural or the paranormal. The next real challenge for Jason Blum and Jordan Peele is to make a film outside of these genre constraints, and to come back to the world of quality, smart filmmaking that Peele so excellently displayed two years ago with “Get Out.” As that classic film’s title suggests, it’s time for Jordan Peele already to get out of this genre—before it’s too late.