This review contains spoilers to the plot of Us. Watch Us first before reading because it’s an excellent film.
I’m going to run through what I think is my main interpretation of Us first, because I think it’s an extremely clever film, and although I think Baudrillard’s notions permeate the work, the clear analogy running through the work is worth exploring.
There’s a sense in which each of the alternative family are, as the title would suggest, Us, but our worst sides. For example, whereas Jason plays with a toy that makes sparks, his alternative, Pluto (named for the ruler of the underworld) is a pyromaniac with a burned face. These alternatives represent what we would do if unconstrained. As such what holds us back from the ‘darkness of humanity’ as Peele himself puts it, is the social ties, the need we have to put on a mask to interact with others. If, like in America (Us vs ‘U.S.’) at the moment, these masks begin to drop, violence and mayhem will ensue. In this conception both the underground and overground alternatives are both real, held in tension by the image we choose to portray to others. Peele is suggesting (as all horror films do, to some degree) that what is most terrifying is ourselves.
Both Jason and Pluto wear masks, but the key thing that the film is exploring is that we all wear masks. Rather than attacking this as being something terrible and we need to become our ‘true’ selves, I believe the film is saying that these masks have a value. Indeed, towards the end of the film, Jason and Zora exchange a brief moment where, in a moment of terror, he puts on his (Chewbacca) mask. She looks at him as if to say ‘why?’, his gestured retort seems to say ‘why not, it comforts me?’ and she accepts this.
In 1981, Jean Baudrillard published a book, known in English as Simulacra and Simulation. Like most Baudrillard, getting at all aspects of his ideas is not easy but I’ll give a very quick run-through here because it’s important for the rest of what I’d like to suggest.
Simulacra are copies of things where either the original never existed, or where the original at least no longer exists. Baudrillard opens with what he claims to be a quote from Ecclesiastes:
The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact there is none.
The simulacrum is true.
Baudrillard suggests that societies progress through stages in which we take reality:
- Firstly we reproduce it with a sign that is a faithful copy
- Next, we come to believe that the sign is an unfaithful copy. Signs no longer seem to reveal reality to us, but they at least suggest a reality is still there, even if the sign fails to capture it fully.
- By the third stage, the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but there is no original. Signs and images still claim to represent something real, but there is no underlying reality that they’re referring to.
- In the fourth stage, this simulacrum has no relationship to reality whatsoever – signs just refer to other signs creating a space in which everything only exists in relation to something else. He called this stage the hyperreal. In this stage, any reference to reality is perceived as being oversentimental or naïve.
Baudrillard contends that we went through three historical stages that match these. Premodern times linked the real and the sign, in the Industrial Age, mass reproduction led to copies of items, making commodities which imitate reality. Finally, the post modern age, the simulacrum ‘wins out’ as it were and the relationship between reality and representation vanishes. Everything is a simulation.
I felt that it was useful to give a relatively quick run through the philosophy of the book, but I got a fair amount of it from the rather good Wikipedia page, so if you’d like to read some more about it, I’d start there rather than trying to delve into the book itself which is on the verge of being incomprehensible even if, like me, you’ve got a degree in Philosophy.
Before we return to Us, I’d like to mention that these ideas were explored in 1999’s The Matrix. Indeed, a rather beautiful edition of Simulacra and Simulation is where Neo stores his computer discs. In the Matrix, it transpires that the ‘real world’ that Neo lives in is, in fact, a simulation because robots have decided that humans make good batteries. One reading of The Matrix is, therefore, that the world Neo is escaping by taking the red pill is actually equivalent to the postmodern world in which we live. Neo is in fact taking a journey back to a simpler time where signs and reality were more closely related.
Us bears a similarity to The Matrix in this respect. The alternative family that the Wilsons meet, simulates their existence in tunnels beneath the world, and like Baudrillard’s contention of a postmodern world, it is unclear quite whose world a simulation of the either, and thus, perhaps neither are truly ‘real’. The pun of the title queries who really is ‘Us’ in these scenario. Are we them, or are they us?
Added to this, though, the film also communicates a number of further interpretations or signs (added to the ones above) that are less related to Baudrillard in appearing to signify things in the real world (although, I guess Baudrillard would probably suggest the real world situations I’m about to describe are merely another collection of signs).
The film is also an expression of how society creates and feeds off a hidden class who operate out of sight of the middle and upper classes, but keep the world operating. The final two acts of the film, therefore, are like a revolution where the working class rise up and destroy their middle class equivalents.
Similarly, there’s an analogy with the American love of incarceration which, like the slavery it replaced, has created an entire group of humans living a shadow existence outside the freedoms we assume for ourselves. Adelaide spends a large amount of the film in chains, and although Peele has specifically said this film isn’t about race (and it certainly doesn’t need to be), he’s certainly making this allusion clear.
The film operates on all of these levels, questioning our notions of reality in a post-modern world, presenting a metaphor of our best and worst selves and how they interact, and speaks to the separation between classes and the incarcerated, all while presenting a genuinely creepy horror film. Quite the achievement.