The world building of Us (deep spoilers)

Jordan Peele’s frankly terrifying film Us really unnerved me. I wanted to see it again before writing more about it but I don’t think I’m going to get an opportunity anytime soon. I really want to talk about how the intentional absurdity of some of the premises in the film work really well i.e. the underlying explanation of events doesn’t stand up to pedantic scrutiny and that not only doesn’t detract from the film but is played as an advantage.

This means spoilers, so I have waited a week. I will be talking about most of the big reveals in the film, so don’t go further if you haven’t see it and don’t want spoilers.

The trailer for Us, the posters and even the design of the scissors featured on one poster, were quite clear that this was going to be a movie about doppelgangers. The trailer hides very little, showing many key moments from across the film’s stages including Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) meeting her counterpart in each of the three key encounters (in hall of mirrors as a child, in the ‘home invasion’ part of the film and underground).

The posters also don’t hide the premise and this one even points directly at the big ‘twist’ – that the adult Adelaide is actually the underground doppleganger and the menacing ‘Red’ is original, ‘genuine’ Adelaide.

Even the scissors wielded by the tethers (also prominent in some of the posters) have handles suggestive of two heads facing away from each other — more symmetrically than is normal for scissor handles.

For a subtle film there’s nothing subtle about how the ‘scary doppelganger’ premise was marketed. Even before the film begins, audience have been primed to ask where this family of evil scissor wielding identical copies of the protagonist family have come from. The idea is both scary and absurd and more scary because it is absurd. Gabe Wilson (played as an affable quintessential dad by Winston Duke) faces the same questions that the audience has been primed with: who are these people, how do they look like his family and what do they want? Adelaide, as we later discover, already knows the answers to these questions.

The ‘how’ and ‘what’ of the Tethered is explained in pieces. Firstly the film opens with some short text about the quantity of tunnels across America. After the sequence featuring young Adelaide, we get the pictures of the caged rabbits during the title credits. Later, during the home invasion section of the film, Red in a rasping voice explains the situation as a kind of fairy tale. Her story makes no sense aside from the brute fact that she and her family are right there in front of their frightened above-ground versions.

Further into the film we get a more detailed account. At some point, some powerful people discovered they could make doubles of people. Those doubles shared a single soul so that the double repeated what their twin would do — the doubles were ‘tethered’ to their twin. An underground world was created full of these doubles in the hope that by controlling the people underground the powerful people could control those above ground. The experiment didn’t work and the tethered were left to mindlessly repeat the actions of those above for no purpose.

Living only off rabbits, the tethered continued this existence until the encounter of the above ground and tethered versions of Adelaide when she was a child. In an inversion of the fantasy story of a Westerner arriving in foreign land and teaching the oppressed people to rebel, the kidnapped Adelaide gives the tethered a new direction and a new mission: to reclaim the world above.

This hidden back story neither aims for the supernatural nor for realism. It doesn’t work as a science-fiction premise (you can’t live off nothing but rabbits, who even cleans those corridors, where are the toilets, and where did all the scissors come from etc) but aside from the brief mention of ‘souls’ the back story is not framed as supernatural. The underground world depicted can’t possibly work (where does the electricity come from, who maintains that escalator?) but (within the film) it does.

I don’t think the film is depending on our suspension of disbelief so much as exploiting our uncertainty about the world. While the premise isn’t supernatural, the fact that the under ground world of the tethers is impossible is the opposite of reassuring.

Late in the film, the opening sequence from the 1980s is shown again, this time under ground. The tethered version of Adelaide wanders through the clinical corridors under ground, while around her the tethered mimic the actions of those above. By chance or fate both Adelaides end up on a path that brings them together in a hall of mirrors. The tethered live in a nightmare world and Adelaide’s journey resembles both a portal fantasy and a folk tale reminiscent of many stories of hidden worlds underground (for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aos_S%C3%AD )

That people or things could be living in the worlds below us (whether natural caves or purposed built tunnels) is hardly a new idea. Peele even includes as little easter eggs VHS tapes on a book shelf which include the shlocky horror flick of murderous underground mutants C.H.U.D. and also more charmingly The Goonies, which also features a town riddled with tunnels and secrets. I don’t think the 1972 UK film Death Line gets a nod but oddly sympathetic murderous tunnel dwellers isn’t new to film and yet it isn’t something really codified as a genre.

Peele places the tethered in a unsettling position that appeals to urban myth and more traditional folk stories. That the world building is unstable and implausible is part of the horror — rather like the hypnosis, brain surgery and sinister conspiracy in Get Out makes no sense overall but which works at a stronger level than mere allegory.

Tunnels are secrets, hidden things, treasures and gateways between life and death. A journey underground is a repeated myth of rebirth, either spiritual or as a funeral right. Us captures a lot of that but inverts it with very little of the film ever occurring underground. What if all those primal emotions about caves and dark places is transposed above ground into worlds of bright open places such as beach? The film unnerves from beginning to end by moving things from where we expect them to be.

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3 thoughts on “The world building of Us (deep spoilers)

  1. I haven’t seen it, and I probably won’t because I don’t like horror movies, but I am fascinated by the title which is Us and US at the same time. I’ve also heard that it seems to be more about class than race (although the two are not really separable in the US). Underground railway. Underclass. Tethered/ chained/ lack of mobility. So, does it seem to be say anything about “us” in the “US”? Very curious.

    Peele doesn’t seem to be a Spike-Lee-level-obvious filmmaker but he clearly has things to say.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Writing links and a couple of neat comics covers | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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