Jordan Peele Proves He Is a Master of Modern Horror with ‘Us’

It’s almost impossible to view this movie in a vacuum, a void in which director Jordan Peele didn’t make his directorial debut two years ago with the remarkable Get Out, a movie which garnered a large number of award nominations, going on to win many including the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That weight is inescapable, but instead of trying to reinvent the wheel with his hotly anticipated sophomore effort, Peele reaches into a grab bag of horror tropes familiar to 80s and 90s horror enthusiasts and mixes them with some premises he used in his first film to create something altogether unique. The result is a genre-bending roller coaster ride that will have you on the edge of your seat one moment, then laughing yourself off the edge the next.

A few introductory scenes depict a young girl in 1986 watching a commercial for Hands Across America. Later on, she wanders off the boardwalk by herself and into a funhouse where she is frightened by a figure that looks like herself. In the present day, we are then introduced to the Wilsons, a lovely family of four on a car ride to their Northern California vacation home–the distant but protective mother, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o); the goofy, well-intentioned father, Gabe (Winston Duke); the teenage, smartphone-wise daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph); and the scamp of a preteen son, Jason (Evan Alex). Attempting to enjoy themselves and relax, the family heads to the beach. Though Adelaide seemingly has mild PTSD from the aforementioned events she experienced as a child, she never talks about what happened, even as the Santa Cruz beach triggers repressed memories. All this changes when four strangers appear that night at the end of their driveway.

From start to finish, Nyong’o is particularly amazing in her role, going for broke in every scene. Adelaide is well in line with other strong, female badasses such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, and her transformation through the movie is very interesting to watch. Duke also plays his part well with Gabe acting as the comic relief essential for this movie to work. Peele, as he did in Get Out, loves to mix in dashes of grounded comedy, allowing for levity now and then. While Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are both serviceabe in their roles as Kitty and Josh respectively, their characters are only in a couple scenes and don’t add much to the plot except to move it forward, not knowing enough about them to care. The Wilson kids are much more integral and both are embodied well by their child actors.

Though there is a lot of violence and death, most of those deaths are never
seen directly, only implied by blood spatters and the use of sound. Many people flinch or look away when deaths are shown on-screen, so this style allows even antsy viewers to keep watching, building the sense of dread even more. When death is shown on-screen in Us, it is always a pivotal moment that no viewer will be likely to turn away from, their eyes glued to the screen. The fact that people won’t want to miss watching those deaths might say something about us as people and perhaps Peele wants us to confront that.

Many horror movies rely on overly gruesome scenes to induce scares, but Us instead depends on sound effects and music. Their implementation here is very effective at conveying emotion and provoking jumps. In one scene, when the Wilson doppelganger family is being introduced, the score strategically changes from loud orchestral music to complete silence except for some very creepy sounds, leaving us to fill the sudden void with our imagination of what will happen next. This style is also held over from 80s horror movies, but Peele uses it to such great effect here.

It’s notable how horror can be drawn from seemingly normal, everyday events and contrasting imagery. Right from the beginning, the camera follows young Adelaide closely while she walks the boardwalk with her parents. Everything is bigger than life and sounds are loud and foreign. The child holds a perfect, uneaten candy apple, signifying pure innocence. That is, of course, until she drops it and walks into the funhouse. This sort of imagery continues throughout the movie with rabbits and the color red all over the place, which only adds to the creepy atmosphere.

Peele is wonderfully on-point with the symbolism. The overall theme that everyone has a secret dark side is wonderfully executed. That, if everyone’s dark sides were revealed, they would kill everyone brings to mind the Purge movie series. However, the more poignant allusion expressed in Us is that of Trump and his effect on America, how large groups of people were forced to live in the shadows until he ran for president and now his unwavering supporters have come out of the woodwork and comprise almost half of the country’s population.

If there’s one thing that holds this movie back, it would be that the story is so dense that many ideas end up not panning out on closer inspection. For example, there is a particular verse that is alluded to a number of times. The verse itself is sort of prophetic for what happens in the movie, but it’s not clear why, say, Jason points to the alarm clock when it reads the verse number. In another scene, when everyone is enjoying themselves on the beach, a random red frisbee with a star on it nearly hits Adelaide, falls, and completely covers a blue circle on the towel. She acts concerned when she sees it, but beyond the symbolism and foreshadowing this occurrence would provide for the viewer, it’s not clear why she would think this was out of the ordinary.

In fact, there are quite a few questions the film presents, many of which are never answered. Adelaide’s early explanation of “things seem to be falling into place” doesn’t make much sense since the only thing supernatural occurring this world is the tethering concept. Peele himself may offer answers to a lot of these inconsistencies in the form of sequels, which he has alluded to being open to making. On the other hand, he has said that not providing every answer, leaving people to guess, merely adds to the psychological horror.

Jordan Peele’s much-anticipated sophomore effort is outstanding, just like his debut. His method of almost completely switching genres every 20 minutes really works for Us and keeps the viewer guessing. The underlying mystery at its core, with a twist that’s not entirely surprising, is unreservedly performed by its cast with Nyong’o standing out in particular. Though its story may not be as streamlined as Get Out, Us deserves just as much attention for its use of iconography and current-day themes and its clever merging of classic tropes with new ideas.

Score: 4.5 out of 5

Captain Marvel Review

CAUTION: I’m going to get into some spoilery territory in this review, so if you don’t want to know anything that happens, just skip to the last paragraph. 

The history of Captain Marvel goes back quite a ways, as many of Marvel’s characters do, but this one in particular is especially complex. It all started with a Captain Marvel, created in 1939, that was published by Fawcett Comics. DC Comics sued Fawcett in 1951, claiming the character was too similar to Superman, leading the latter company to cease publication of the hero. However, since Marvel Comics officially changed their name in 1961, they had every right to create a character by the same name, which they did in 1967. The catch, since Fawcett and subsequently DC also owned the Captain Marvel trademark until his name was changed to Shazam in 1972, was that Marvel had to publish a title using the name at least once every two years or they would lose the rights. As such, 7 different characters within the mainline Marvel Comics universe have held the mantle, the latest being Carol Danvers, previously known as Ms. Marvel (in turn, passing that mantle to the first Muslim character to headline a comic book, Kamala Khan).

With such a long history, it would be difficult to compress such a character down to a 2-hour+ runtime. The route the MCU takes with it is likely the easiest and most effective with the first and latest Captain Marvels at the forefront. The film begins with Carol (Brie Larson), called Vers here even though we all know what her real name is, waking from dreams she can’t explain. We come to infer from her interactions with mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) that she is a Kree, a militant and advanced alien race from the planet Hala. The Kree are at war with the Skrull, a shape-shifting alien race. Yon-Rogg is trying to teach Carol how to control her emotions and powers in battle, which he feels will make her stronger, but she is haunted by shadows of memories she can’t access because she has amnesia. They are both part of an elite task force which is soon deployed to another planet to hunt down Skrull. After a fight and crash landing, Carol finds herself on Earth and in trying to evade the Skrull that follow her and escape, she finds out who she is and the true depth of her power.

There is a lot to love in this movie. While I still wonder if we could have received a better Carol Danvers from an actress that is not so girly, Larson is absolutely capable with the part and that quality adds an interesting dimension to the character. The supporting cast is outstanding with Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, and Lee Pace returning to their previous roles and Ben Mendelsohn and Annette Bening playing new characters Talos and Mar-Vell, respectively. Goose the cat absolutely steals every scene he is in. The references to the 90s get quite a few chuckles at times, complete with cameos from Blockbuster, Radio Shack, TLC, Garbage, Smashing Pumpkins, AOL, Windows loading icons, and more. The action choreography and special effects are generally pretty great as well, especially with the de-aging deployed on Jackson and Gregg. Story-wise, Captain Marvel is decent as a prequel to the MCU, setting up things that are yet to happen, while simultaneously alluding to events we will see play out in Avengers: Endgame.

When you gloss over the movie, it’s quite functional, bright, and fun, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense upon closer inspection. When the rest of the MCU is taken into consideration and the fact that this movie chronologically takes place before all the others except the first Captain America, the timing of the communicator’s usage at the end of Infinity War, never before, seems very questionable. Not when the Chitauri attacked New York. Not when Ultron was was going to obliterate the Earth. Only right before Thanos was about to snap half of all life in the universe out of existence. Moreover, there was no guarantee that Carol wouldn’t have been snapped out of existence as well, so why would Fury have waited until the very last minute to call her?

Even when viewing the movie on its own, it doesn’t hold up very well as a stand-alone screenplay. The information dumps that seem to happen at every major plot point can be a little jarring, so much so that I think I missed some important details in the beginning of the movie while I was still adjusting to the setup. As far as origin stories go, the only reason Carol’s is interesting here is because of the amnesia angle, but that is such a predictable and overused movie trope that using it just feels lazy. The “friends become enemies, enemies become friends” story is also a twist that’s not too surprising. It’s not always clear why some things are happening or why some characters act the way they do. Fury seems to have no reaction when he finds out there’s alien life beyond Earth, and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) acts pissed off and then sad after she finds out her best friend who disappeared 6 years prior didn’t actually die. Then she has to be talked into helping said best friend by her young daughter.

The biggest issue this movie has is that it is inconsequential from almost every angle. Sure, it introduces the titular character and the dynamic between Fury and her was entertaining to watch, but we already knew Captain Marvel existed based off of events in other movies and that she will likely save the day in the next Avengers film. DC managed to beat Marvel by having Wonder Woman as the first female-led superhero movie of the modern era. The message of this film is very muddled and seems to be that determination will overcome any obstacle, but that is never blatantly clear and only becomes apparent very near the end. After the genre-defining genius on display in Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spiderman: Homecoming, this movie checks all the necessary boxes but fails to set itself apart or live up to the high bar of excellence those films set for the MCU. If you are not very invested in this universe, you probably won’t miss much by skipping Captain Marvel.

Score: 3 out of 5