The horror movie “Us” came out earlier this year, and it was written and directed by Jordan Peele, formerly a member of the comedy group “Key & Peele,” and the director of the movie “Get Out” and the new season of “The Twilight Zone” on CBS. To be honest, the plot of the movie makes little sense when interpreted literally, but the figurative meaning of “Us” is much more profound and interesting. Using the concept of the doppelganger, it explores themes like the duality of reason and primitive desires in the human being, the unbalanced relationship between the upper class and the lower class, and social and ethical problems. Further, it is replete with symbolism, metaphor, “easter eggs,” and hidden references - in fact, so replete that I had to watch it twice, and it’s still clear that I haven’t caught everything.
WARNING: In this post, I will spoil the movie “Us.” If you don’t want to see “spoilers,” stop reading here. In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you won’t be able to understand a large part of the following; so, you should watch the movie first anyways. You have been warned!
An important theme of “Us” is the dark side of human nature, the primitive and wild aspect that remains even in the brains of “civilized” modern people. The antagonists (the tethered) behave in a wild manner, communicating with gestures, grunts, and roars, and killing and torturing their counterparts without reservations, suggesting that they embody the untamed core of each human. While the civilized humans interact in a controlled way on the outside, their doppelgangers hide underground so that the society continues to function, indicating that we all have to suppress our animal nature in order to live in harmony. The rabbits that appear everywhere (including on both of Zora’s sweatshirts - ‘Thỏ’ means ‘rabbit’ in Vietnamese) over the course of the movie also seem to symbolize the wild part of a human being. They stay trapped in cages at the beginning (in a classroom, no less, where one learns to control the animal inside through education), but at the end of the movie, they are released like the tethered. Wild imagery of all sorts appears over the course of “Us:” the paintings and murals of nature and wild animals in the mirror maze, Jason’s mask, the spiders on top of the table, and so on.
However, instead of simply separating the civilized from the primitive, this movie shows that both are intertwined and that they can’t be separated so easily. We see that the “civilized” people also behave primitively, though without grunts and roars. Gabe exhibits primitive sexual desires in the “magic room,” ignoring his wife’s unease; Jason runs around the house wearing his wolf-man mask; on the beach, Adelaide observes the wildness of the beach-goers; Adelaide and Zora both fly off the handle while killing the doppelgangers of Kitty’s daughters. Similarly, the tethered display much more skill, self-control, and coordination than their counterparts in some respects. Of course, the ultimate inversion is the plot twist at the end of the movie: Adelaide, who should have been savage and incapable of a civilized life, converted herself into a citizen indistinguishable from the others. This all suggests that a human is not the sum of a rational part and a primitive part, but rather an inseparable mix of both aspects, to the contrary of the concept of a doppelganger.
“Us” isn’t only about “us” as individuals, but also collectively, as a society or even a country - it’s about the “U.S.” If the multitude of other hints doesn’t give it away, Red’s weird comment during the home invasion - “we’re Americans” - reveals that “Us” has something to say about the United States. The motivation behind the attacks is that the tethered suffer so that Adelaide, her family, and all of the citizens on the surface can enjoy the benefits of American life, although they are no less deserving or capable of participating in civilization - we know this because Adelaide, from below, did so successfully. In fact, the massacre is reminiscent of a recent even in the United States that was much less bloody but just as horrifying for some people, also caused by the discontentedness of the lower class: the 2016 elections.
Many Americans take for granted the benefits of living in the United States, or even believe that they deserve them, without realizing that their lifestyles depend on the suffering of others. “Us” slightly makes fun of this attitude with references to the anarchist band “Black Flag” (whose logo appears on the t-shirts of various people) and the song “Fuck the Police,” underscoring the naiveté of criticizing the government without recognizing its benefits nor the real consequences of anarchy. Another jab at the upper class is the reference to “Hands Across America,” which pretended to benefit the less fortunate but had no lasting effects and benefitted the privileged more, giving them the peace of mind of having tried to help the needy (see “moral licensing”).
The commentary about human nature and the omnipresence of wildness in out behavior adds another dimension to this social message. Although civilization is typically seen as a good thing, “Us” suggests that it is a tool that can be used for good or for bad. It gives us security and prosperity, but it can also be used as a pretext for abandoning and rejecting the needy as “inferior” or “savage,” without recognizing that they haven’t had an opportunity to become civilized, and that we are host to the same wild roots. In fact, many members of the upper class use their privilege to suppress others and satisfy their own primitive desires (food, sex, power, etc.), in which case their “social graces” are a mere façade.
Overall, “Us” is a wonderful movie. In addition to these social and cultural commentaries, it overflows with “easter eggs,” references, and subtle hints (for which I had to watch the movie twice). For example, it contains many references to other horror movies, like “Jaws” (Jason’s t-shirt), “C.H.U.D.” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” (on the shelves surrounding the TV in the first scene), “The Shining” (the aerial shot of the car and the doppelgangers of the twin girls), “The Birds” (the sound of the ocean at the beginning of the movie, and various images of birds throughout), and “Thriller” (the t-shirt, and the attire of the tethered). The names of various characters are also significant: “Pluto” is the Greek god of the underworld; “Umbrae” refers to shadows; “Wilson,” the last name of the family, could be a reference to the short story “William Wilso” by Edgar Allan Poe about a doppelganger; and “Ophelia,” the name of the device in Kitty’s house, probably has some significance that I haven’t figured out yet. Another interesting thing is the foreshadowing of the plot twist that I didn’t notice during the first watch: in the maze, the girl whistles a melody and her double whistles it backwards, but when Red visits Adelaide’s house, she doesn’t whistle backwards. It seems like every detail of this movie was meticulously and intentionally designed, and it’s worth watching because of this (twice, even).