io9 Roundtable: Us Is So Much More Than a Horror Movie

Scenes from Us.
Image: Universal

Jordan Peele’s Us is the kind of horror movie that lingers with you long after you’ve seen it. The commentary baked into the film is readily apparent while you’re watching, but the more time you spend thinking about it after you’ve left the theater, the more Us’ more subtle messages begin to come into focus.

After seeing Us the io9 team obviously needed to decompress and discuss the movie, but in the spirit of creating a human tether spanning across large distances, we were joined by Gizmodo Media Group’s Christina Blacken and Divesh Brahmbhatt for this lively discussion.

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Just in case you haven’t seen Us yet, we’ll leave this here:

Christina Blacken: I’m not the biggest fan of horror, but think it’s the best genre for making the systems we deal with every day feel even more terrifying, which Jordan Peele does so damn well. The visceral thrills of doppelgängers, all bug-eyed and slashing folks up, representing systemic power struggles not only scared the shit out of me but kept me thinking. My main takeaway from the film is what is done in war—each side feels justified in the atrocities they cause on their own personal quest to liberation—and the creator of the war is anonymous and removed from any repercussions.

Germain Lussier: Going into the movie, I was very curious to see what exactly it was all about. The trailers really hooked me and the idea of these perfect copies of “us” was instantly intriguing. So, watching the movie, the fact that Peele not only had a provocative explanation for that, but so, so much more, is really what I liked most about it. As the film continued to reveal its secrets, the “how” got more muddled, but I didn’t care because the “why” was so fascinating. It felt like a film that everyone would get a different interpretation of depending on their experiences and preconceptions, which is kind of like the main character herself, so shockingly influenced by environment.

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Charles Pulliam-Moore: It’s kind of weird to talk about the movie now that I’ve spent some time away from it because my feelings about the story as a whole have come into a focus that I didn’t feel they could immediately after seeing it. It’s a horror movie, yeah, but to Christina’s point, you’re meant to come away from it with this understanding that both sides of the conflict were justified in their actions. Like, ultimately, I came away from Us feeling sad, which I wasn’t expecting—so much so that the feeling felt strange and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was until I’d taken the time to sit and reflect, and I suppose kind of wallow in guilt?

Christina: I agree with Germain that “the how” was muddled, there were a lot of plot holes. Which is a downside of horror from a story perspective—horror doesn’t make sense and for good reason usually—if they made you jump out of your seat, got your heart racing, and made you sweat through your clothes, the horror genre feels like they did their job. Jordan adds a nice payoff though that makes you think. For people who just want thrills it satisfies that, for people who want to get a bit more to think on, it does it too. It was actually a lot funnier than I expected too.

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Cheryl Eddy: I was also surprised by how funny it was. Winston Duke’s character especially—that damn boat!—as well as the family friends, who were basically caricatures (it’s hard to imagine those two families would really hang out all that often), played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker. It’s difficult to keep that balance of “oh shit!” tension and violence but also all those absurd touches, like the AI “Ophelia” playing a hilariously wrong song when someone tries to use it to call the police, or the twins doing their cartwheels, but Peele is always able to pull it off.

Charles: It’s interesting you bring up the calling the police bit. So much of this movie feels different than Get Out because of the number of horror movie tropes it relies on to move the plot forward. And that’s as a result of what I interpreted as Peele’s assumption that we, as an audience, came into the theater prepared to have a proper experience, if that makes any sense. Like, he as a filmmaker knows that we understand the shorthand of the genre in such a way that he can use it casually to anchor moments in the film while still knowing that we’re looking for the more significant meaning behind a particular scene.

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Divesh Brahmbhatt: It’s hard not to compare Us with Get Out as two pieces of deft political filmmaking, and furthermore even harder to follow up the success of a movie like Get Out with Us. But I’m so glad to see how distinguished they are from each other, and how each tackles political and social themes with a different horror approach. Though Us is more pointed in its horror tropes where Get Out’s terror lurks mostly under the surface, it’s just as successful because it comes at you both on the surface as well as underneath. The third act of Us with the exposition is the only point where it goes a bit downhill for me, as most horror movies do, though that’s where Get Out shined.

Germain: The Get Out vs. Us thing is interesting because, Peele himself was very upfront before this came out to say “This is a horror film” and “It’s not about race,” which, okay, but yes it is about race. It just so happens it’s not only or specifically about that. It’s about a lot of things. So I think, as a filmmaker, he didn’t want to get boxed into the “I make socially conscious horror movies” thing but then he made a movie that almost blows that notion out of the water. Us is about so much more. Everything, kind of, depending on how you look at it. And the seeds of those ideas are all throughout. Red saying they’re Americans. That God brought her and Adelaide together, etc.

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Cheryl: It’s also very much in the tradition of dark fairy tales, and stories about hidden worlds lurking just beyond the awareness of most people who’re just going about their ordinary lives. Considering the first protagonist is a young girl who discovers an underworld world of doppelgängers, it made me think of stories like Coraline and even Pan’s Labyrinth.

Charles: To both of your points, I think that Peele’s comments about the movie before its release were a purposeful misdirect because we’re meant to read the movie as commentary on a scale so large that it’s talking about everyone. With a film like Get Out that focuses specifically on race, there’s a different kind of specificity that the movie can have because you know what its primary focus is. But with something like Us that’s ostensibly a critique on, fuck—just being a person of relative privilege, whatever your particular circumstances are—the story’s almost got to zoom out a bit and become something that errs more on the fairytale side of things rather than pure horror.

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Christina: I think the comparison is an extension of wanting to use the buzz from Get Out to get people excited for the next installment in his work, but they have nothing to do with each other at all. What’s more compelling is his lens and POV as a black creator means his approach to character development, plot, and theme will already have perspectives and motivations that you don’t typically see, especially in the horror genre. It’s quite a feat to create a subtle metaphor that can apply to so many levels of power dynamics—be it race vs race, nurture vs nature, rich vs poor and more. I will say though that Get Out had a much more direct in your face message, and many people still missed it. So for Us to be as subtle as it is, it will definitely not be digested as universally as one may hope.

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Divesh: I think Christina’s point is best summarized in the most terrifying yet revelatory line in the movie—when Red replies when asked who they are: “We’re Americans.” This opens the door for Peele to really dig into the many topics of power dynamics and social justice present in America still today, still relevant as most have been for decades. What I admire is that he’s doing so with signature panache, with adventure and horror mixed with very comedic moments that make those topics more easily digestible. It’s hard to tackle all of them at once, but Peele knows how—and I must mention, with such a bizarre but entertaining product.

Christina: Exactly, the systems that make up America and most modern societies at this stage are able to be put through his metaphor just with that subtle line.

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Germain: I only think the film is subtle in how you choose to watch it. Like, I don’t think a lot of people will be comfortable watching any movie that’s maybe telling them “Our country is being overtaken by horrible people.” I mean, they literally form hands across America. Murderers do this. It’s not “subtle” but you do have to wrap your head around it and kind of backtrack through the movie. And I still find it fascinating that Peele juxtaposes that idea with the idea of the Red/Adelaide switch. That the Tethered do have compassion in them. They do have potential. They’re just a product of horrible conditions.

Christina: True, I think the choice of how people watch affects it and if they want to take the step to apply the metaphor outside of the world Peele created. From the commentary and buzz I saw after Get Out, I can see a lot people missing that step or not even wanting to take it, and just seeing the movie for the thrills it has, which has its own merits (although I hope the general public consensus is to see how well the film reflects how fucked up our systems can be). Can we also talk about the fact the children are scary AF in this film. Is it just me or evil children are the scariest things in horror??

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Charles: The fact that Scary Children™ are a thing-thing, no, it’s definitely not just you. But let’s talk about the kids for a second. So much of the movie’s about Adelaide and Red’s motivations, but one of the most fascinating parts of the story is the...ambivalence, I guess, that both women have in regards to one another’s children. Adelaide less so, because she understands that Umbrae and Pluto are there to murder her family, but in Red, I think you see a kind of hesitation and benevolence towards Zora and Jordan. She’s fine with her Tethered children killing them, but I don’t think she would be willing to do it herself because she feels a kind of attachment to them. Almost like they’re the ideal versions of her own monstrous children, and doesn’t want to be responsible for their deaths. Even though, technically, she still would be.

Germain: I think that attitude Charles is talking about speaks largely to something a lot of people were asking about the film and that’s, why Red? What makes her special? Why doesn’t she and her family just kill Adelaide and her family? And, I thought this was obvious but maybe not, it’s because of what we learn later, that she’s not really Red, she is Adelaide. So she has a hatred in her that’s palpable. She has the ability to lead but also to punish Adelaide for what she did to her. And I think that extends to the kids. She sees a better version of her kids but also, that can’t overtake this primary rage to torture and get revenge.

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Charles: See, I disagree with the assertion that “she’s not Red, she’s Adelaide.” The whole point of the twist, I think, is that we’re meant to question the very nature of what the women’s identities are. At one point in time, yes, they were two discrete, separate people with their own identities, but in switching places, both of them were exposed to things about their others that made it possible for them to slide into new identities. “Red” was the original Adelaide, sure, but in becoming trapped in the Underpass, she became her new self, and the same goes for “new” Adelaide topside. I really think that the thing that makes the two of them unique is that they were people who perfected the failed experiment. Red explains that the Tethered were meant to be a control mechanism for their others, but the experiment didn’t work. But. You see Adelaide and Red both performing their ballet routines in perfect sync—the kind of perfect sync the other Tethered people don’t have.

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Christina: I actually saw them both defer to the kids at times, for instance when Adelaide hesitated with the masked son Pluto before he got walked into the fire. The innocence of children is always questioned in war—are they off limits because they are innocent actors that should be protected at all times? And how are they used as weapons for the adult’s gain in their innocence?

Germain: Charles, I love that idea that Red/Adelaide are the results of the experiment working right, I hadn’t thought of that. I had just read it as Peele’s way of kind of hammering home his point of “Yeah, the Tethered are taking over and guess what...it could be you!” *Dramatic Music*

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Charles: Well, I mean look at Umbrae and Pluto. Red telling Zora to run is...interesting, because it makes you wonder. Is she telling her to run because she wants her to have a head start or is it because she knows that if Zora runs, Umbrae will literally have to. With Jason and Pluto, I think what you’re seeing is...I dunno, maybe a stronger tether—the way it works when people are still young enough to not question their own actions. That scene with the two of them in the closet, and then later on with the burning car makes it clear that topside people, in theory, still have some degree of control over their Tethered counterparts. But the more you think about the things that set Jason about—I think the movie implies that he’s on the autism spectrum—the more you have to question whether or not that assumption holds up.

Christina: I felt Red telling Zora to run was just a hunter playing with its prey and more about the thrills. Which again is the challenge in horror—how much of each choice is just to get a visceral reaction or move the overall message forward. I also hadn’t thought about Jason potentially being autistic; that’s an interesting additional layer. I think the biggest plot hole is how being tethered works. It was so inconsistent and I don’t think that was intentional.

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Germain: Yes, that’s certainly a question I had, the strength of the Tether. It’s essential to the plots in so many ways but also so open-ended. Jason kills Pluto with it, but it seems everyone has it, as per them basically living the shadow life of everyone else’s in the Underpass. That’s one of those things that you probably shouldn’t think too much more about, but makes your mind race with the possibilities of what is a soul, what do we have control over, etc.

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Divesh: Can we talk about the music and sound design? It’s something that really distinguishes Us from other horror movies and even from Peele’s last effort. The music really builds into the weirdness of the movie as a whole, the careful tonal balance that Peele is striking between horror and comedy, satire and narrative. Like what Cheryl said about Moss’ character accidentally activating the PoPo song—such dark humor. The needle drops are so their own—I just don’t think I’ve seen music put to moving picture like this. Red’s croaking voice even, like she’s on her deathbed gasping for air. All of these auditory mixes threw me through a loop but carried me through the movie.

Christina: Yaaas, I was just thinking about how well Peele created an absurdist world through sound and visuals. The comedy really came through in the music, which I appreciated because it didn’t take away from the fear factor to make a joke. I also liked the fact that this family trip felt so benign, he used setting in a way that felt so common and non-threatening, versus the spooky forest being the reason we’re scared. I think that drove home his point of how things we take for granted can actually be really scary. Even having that strange upbeat funny music playing while they were creeping through their neighbor’s house about to potentially get slashed added to the fear in an unexpected way.

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Charles: I feel like an idiot for not having picked up this immediately but, Lupita trying to get her son into the beat on the ones and threes was a goddamned red flag. Which, while funny out of context, is both brilliant and kinda head-scratchy within the context of the film. It’s a sign she’s off, yes, but are we supposed to assume that this woman who studied ballet doesn’t have any sense of rhythm? Or is it just that the Tethered clap on the wrong beat? Also, I just wanna put it out there that Peele came into this movie trying to ruin everyone’s love for Winston Duke, because Gabe was pure trash and probably should have died.

Christina: I was wondering why I felt like her beat was off—I thought it was me seeing things. Gabe was cute but definitely would have died in any other horror film falling down so damn much.

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Divesh: Wow, I didn’t even catch that foreshadowing but I definitely see it as a harbinger of things to come now. I thought it was brilliant casting and character development for Gabe as the goober patriarch who gets away with shit merely via patriarchal privilege, but Addie is through and through superior and gets that one scene to assert her dominance. It’s a perfect showcase of how even the sweet dads breezily enjoy privilege within their place of the nuclear family unit and it’s the women who must constantly fight.

Germain: I feel like we can all agree that, talking about this film just makes us want to see Us again. There’s almost too much to even comprehend going on, especially once you know where it’s all going.

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Charles: Could y’all kill your Tethered counterparts, or would they get you the way I know mine would?

Germain: Germain is so dead.

Divesh: I’m a goner—I know my double would kill me with sweets (and it’d work).

Christina: Christina 2.0 needs to die especially if her hair is as parched as Red’s.

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Us is in theaters now.


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About the author

Charles Pulliam-Moore

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.