What I Like About: Us, and Untangling Ambiguous Metaphors

Us is great. 9/10. It’s flows like a dream (or a nightmare). It’s got stunning and really striking production (the suits really get me). Lupita Nyong’o deserves all the awards, and the rest of the cast are great too (even the kids are wonderful). It’s creepy and unnerving and truly efficient horror. Another knock out by Jordan Peele, who’s quickly becoming the name in horror cinema at the moment. I think I even like this more than Get Out. Now! With that out of the way, let’s go further into the movie and it’s more metaphorical content.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!!!!!!

Film Title: Us

This film has kind of left people in a loop as to how to view it, and I get that. The thing about Get Out was that it’s so goddamn clear about what it’s talking about. The metaphor is not ambiguous. Here, though, it could mean various things. I get it if that’s not your cup of tea, and a lot of films use ambiguity to give the impression they’re saying something when they’re really not. However, there’s a trend in recent media discourse to get across any form of ambiguous storytelling or metaphor to be some kind of lazy cop out or just not very well laid out writing. And that’s where I draw the line, because metaphorical cinema is some of the best it has to offer.

Two of my favourite filmmakers are Alejandro Jodorowsky and David Lynch. Both play hard and fast with what their films stand for, and on different levels. Neither is what you’d call grounded, but Lynch is a little more decipherable than Jodorowsky. His films sometimes have stories you can clearly follow, think of stuff like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr. Us takes a further step into reality, where the movie’s narrative mostly plays out straightforwardly enough, but element involving the Tethered are absolutely up in the air. If the movie has any issues (outside of some misplaced comedy), it’s that they probably explain too much about the Tethered. Keeping them more ambiguous or confused would have made the metaphor hit harder. As it stands, however, there’s still an otherworldly, surrealist quality to everything about them, and that’s what gives Us its ambiance and unnerving energy.

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What does it all mean, then? A lot of things, you could say. For my best estimation, Us is a story about division. Not just politically and socially, but by our own humanity and self-identity. We see this through Adelaide, whose trauma has caused her to want to avoid her past as much as possible. She pushes away her childhood and make it a separate entity from who she is now. We see throughout the beach scene, something she actively tries to avoid, and just how uneasy and a constant state of dread it holds over her.

It’s not just Adelaide with some internalised issues, however. It’s made clear that her children have difficulties socially. Her daughter Zora is way too into the end of the world and online doomsday prophesising. This delves into the problem with online spaces and how they’ve caused us to become fearful and scrupulous of every facet of reality around us. Her son Jason is a lot more antisocial and strange, with indications of a personality disorder. We see their friends’ twins and his sister not make an effort to socialise or look out for him, showing how we divide the mentally unwell are from every day interactions. It’s telling he’s the one who makes the most connection with his Tethered counterpart Pluto.  He seems a lot more aware of how the Tethered operate, which adds to what’s revealed in the final scene.

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Of course, we see this division in class as well. In this case, it’s the same class, with Gabe very evidently resentful of his more well-off white friend’s laps of luxury and the sly way he throws it in his face. Gabe overcompensates by getting a boat, and it’s just kind of pathetic. We feel threatened and resentful by our own peers, and rather than try to feel happy with what we have, we have to continue to compete. It’s the way society is structured to have commodities be a status symbol of how good we are doing in life, and it’s this race for the top that keeps us separated. No matter who we’re standing on to get there.

That’s part of what the Tethered represent; the lower class that is stepped over for this comfort we’re all so blind to. They literally live below level and are subservient to our every whim. These are the invisible bonds that combine the middle and working class together, guided by the unseen scientists who abandoned them. The ones who caused them the most suffering are nowhere to be seen, even though they are the instrument of their torture and would likely be the ones who could resolve it. Instead, it’s all turned on the surface dwellers. This is the essence of class division; we’re so focused on each other, we stay in a never-ending loop rather than face our true oppression.

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That’s what makes them well, “us”. The US, as if I’m the first person to make that connection. All this division does is breed resentment and has us fighting amongst ourselves instead of uniting. But even that doesn’t always work. the Hands Across America imagery pops up a lot in this film. For the uninitiated, it was a movement across America involving various people, friends and strangers alike, holding hands as a charity drive for the starving. Yet, we still have starving people. It’s hard to tell who benefited from that drive in the long run. However, there’s a sense of optimism and companionship, no matter how naïve, that we do not have anymore. No wonder it’s a large part of Red’s iconography. Especially as, well, she is a child of the 80s.

(p.s. That Thriller T-shirt she wears is amazingly clever, as the video is about about Michael Jackson turning into a monster and he controls the actions of the others, and he even wears a red jacket, but Goddamn was it awkwardly timed!)

And that’s why the twist works so well, and really incorporates the symbolism. We were rooting for one of them because, despite the doppelganger appearances and rabbit-subsisting existence, they are us. And they will never accept us because of how the power dynamics were shaped. Yet instead of looking into our darker impulses and coming to an impasse, we ignored them and destruction came. The issues with duality is that we explore them separated from ourselves instead of how they reflect who we are (note: also a huge theme in Lynch’s work).

Us questions whether we can even mend that division, or if we’re just careening into a disaster because we let our egos, insecurities and suspicions get the better of us. We didn’t find the common grounds between the “lower” classes, those less fortunate than us, our peers, and ourselves. And we may have unleashed a greater danger than we are capable of ever reconciling. And they are Americans.

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But hey, that’s just my reading. What’s yours?

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