Have you seen Us yet?
If you haven’t you need to, like, right now. And not just because there are spoilers in this post.
Jordan Peele’s second movie is a complex horror-thriller masterpiece that warrants multiple viewings, and even then, I don’t think we’d fully grasp all the depth and richness of this film. Plus, Lupita Nyong’o deserves all the Oscars.
And after you watch it, if you find yourself wanting to further explore some of the ideas and themes in the movie, we can always, of course, look to the classics.
Here are a few you should check out if you loved Us.
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
If you’re like me, you probably thought it was no coincidence that the Tyler family’s Alexa-like voice assistant device was named Ophelia, after the tragic love interest in Shakespeare’s most famous play.
In Us, the Ophelia device is used to great effect, underscoring the mood of a crucial scene with dark humor and the perfect soundtrack. When her home is invaded by her family’s evil clones, Kitty Tyler, played by Elisabeth Moss (who is incredible as always), tells Ophelia to call the police, but she misunderstands and instead plays N.W.A.’s “F**k the Police.” Killing and mayhem ensue.
The Ophelia in Hamlet is a naive young woman whose every action has been dictated by the men in her life; she does only what she is told, much like a voice assistant (at least the functioning ones). She eventually goes mad and commits suicide, following the death of her father at the hands of Prince Hamlet, her former lover. A classic reading of Ophelia’s character is that she is really two people, one before and one after her madness. This concept of the duality of self is very much at the forefront in Us. (That’s not even a spoiler, it’s in the trailer.)
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
In Us, the relationship that evolves between Adelaide and her double, Red, both portrayed by (past and future Academy Award winner) Lupita Nyong’o, to me was very reminiscent of that of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in Mary Shelley’s novel. It becomes increasingly clear throughout the book that Frankenstein and the Creature are mirror images of one another; they share an inextricable bond, or “tether,” if you will, despite their mutual hatred. The Creature also envies Frankenstein’s life, much as Red does Adelaide’s.
Shelley’s proto-science fiction classic and Us also both explore questions surrounding the nature of humanity, again through this mirror-image relationship. In Us, we learn at the very end that [BIG SPOILER] the Adelaide we’ve been following and rooting for throughout the film is actually the double, switched with the “real” Adelaide when they were children, making the viewer question who is truly human; in Frankenstein, the reader comes to question whether or not the Creature is the true monster and Victor is the true human, or if there is more to humanity than we think.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
This book is super weird, but in the best way possible, much like Us. A masterpiece of imagination, Woolf’s novel follows the life of a poet who changes sex from male to female, lives for hundreds of years, and meets several key figures of English literary history. (Tilda Swinton starred in a brilliant 1993 adaptation.)
While much of modern scholarship focuses on the gender aspect of the story (which is important), the connection I see to Us lies in Orlando‘s exploration of the fluidity between reality and fantasy. Woolf suggests that everything in our experience, internal and external, fact and imagination, is linked together in our memory, and we gain understanding when we realize that neither memory nor history can be easily ordered and categorized.
This characteristic of memory is seen in Adelaide’s perception of what truly happened between herself and her double when they were children. The viewer doesn’t know, and never really finds out, even at the end, what exactly she DOES remember and what she doesn’t. But in Woolf’s view of the nature of memory, it doesn’t really matter, as once an event is in our memory, there is no line between fact and fiction.
The Time Machine, H. G. Wells
In his in-depth review of Us, film critic Jim Vejvoda compared the tethered to the far-future Morlocks in Wells’ science fiction classic. Both are societies that live their entire existence underground, alienated from yet parasitically linked to the parallel societies above ground.
The Time Machine can also be read as a critique of the Victorian idea that simply the passage of time will eventually heal all social ills; this idea is proven false when the time traveler arrives hundreds of thousands of years in the future to find that society is more divided and violent than ever. Us also highlights an idea for social progress that proved to be ineffective; the “Hands Across America” charity initiative of 1986, which did far less good than intended, is used as a framing device and a visual cue that comes back at the end of the movie.
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
If the ideas in Us that appealed to you were the cultural commentary and allegory for American society, you should read The Scarlet Letter. It’s certainly not the only work that deconstructs the idea of the “American Dream,” but it’s one of the earliest.
A major theme in The Scarlet Letter is social stigma and alienation, as Hester Prynne is ostracized and shunned by her community for her adultery. A common critical interpretation of the tethered in Us is that they symbolize those who are marginalized in our modern society. They are both physically and mentally tied to their place in the cultural hierarchy, just as Hester is tethered to her position as a social outcast, even when given the opportunity to flee or remove the red A from her clothing.
Red in Us wears her scarlet jumpsuit just as proudly as Hester wears her scarlet letter, both of which mark their wearers as the “other.” This clothing choice, just like every other clothing choice in Us, plays an integral role in telling the story and illuminating the characters, much as Hester’s elaborately embroidered red letter A is subverted from its intended purpose to become a symbol of her identity and independence. Identity and independence, coincidentally, are what Red is fighting for throughout the film.
EDIT, 04/01/19: I saw Us again this weekend, and now I feel like it was a glaring oversight not to include Alice in Wonderland in this post. I mean, the White Rabbit, Red saying, “We went mad down here,” why didn’t I see that??
If you’re interested in more connections between current movies and TV and classic literature, you should check out my podcast, Pop DNA. That’s exactly what we talk about! Links are in the right sidebar!
Image: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60093756