Evil Doppelgängers are a staple of sci-fi and horror stories (as well as network soap operas), and it’s the device Jordan Peele turns to for his follow-up to “Get Out.” Of course, he mixes it with social commentary, this time about a literal underclass. One would like to say that “Us” is as good as its predecessor, a sly combination of suspense and observation about racial politics that deservedly won an Oscar for its screenplay. Unhappily, despite some sporadically effective moments it emerges as a muddle—a lovingly made but rather pretentious example of the sophomore jinx in action.
The picture begins with a prologue set in 1986, marked by references to “Thriller” and the feel-good “Hands Across America” project (the first, after the recent HBO documentary about Michael Jackson, taking on an especially creepy vibe), in which a young girl named Adelaide (Madison Curry) gets separated from her parents (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anna Diop) during a family visit to a beachside amusement park in Santa Cruz. Wandering into a weird hall of mirrors, she encounters what appears to be a double rather than a reflection and emerges traumatized and unable to speak.
Suddenly switching to the present, Adelaide (now Lupita Nyong’o) is travelling with her family—slightly goofy (and horny) hubby Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and their kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) to their summer house near Santa Cruz. Apparently for the first time, Gabe suggests a family trip to the beach with their rich neighbors Josh and Kitty Tyler (Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss) and their twin daughters (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Doing so proves a bad decision, starting with their coming upon a dead street person (Alan Frazier) being carted away in an ambulance; he’s the same fellow who, two decades earlier, young Adelaide had encountered in her wandering, holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11. (Check it out.) Things get worse when Jason goes missing.
Still, the family gets home fine. Their tranquility is shattered, however, when their house is invaded by strange mirror images of themselves, unkempt and—with one exception—able only to howl, dressed in red coveralls and holding a scissors in one gloved hand. They threaten the Wilsons, one on one, and the episode is not an isolated one—the Tylers will receive a similar visitation, and so will many others. The result is usually fatal.
Who are these creatures, and what do they want? “Us” offers an explanation in the final reel, though a big confrontation sequence staged as a dangerous dance comes off like a deleted scene from “Suspiria” (Guadagnino’s remake, not Argento’s original) and a final twist renders the message muddled (not boding well for Peele’s upcoming “Twilight Zone” reboot). But the notion that the less fortunate in society have been badly treated is really nothing new to the genre (see Brian Yuzna’s “Society” and Wes Craven’s “The People Under the Stairs” for examples—or even the “Purge” franchise), and the Peele doesn’t really make his point clearly enough to fully resgister.
What “Us” does deliver is a good deal of scariness and splatter in the cat-and-mouse sequences of the well-to-do humans and their Doppelgängers chasing and fighting with one another (even if they become repetitious), and substantial doses of humor, much of it with zippy pop culture references. The performances are strong down the line, with the cast having a field day doubling up in their roles as both victims and perpetrators—sometimes it’s difficult to determine which is which. But Nyong’o undoubtedly takes pride of place, delivering a wrenching turn that centers things. On the technical side the crew realizes Peele’s obvious desire for a smooth, somewhat artificial look and a deliberate tempo, with standout contributions from production designer Ruth De Jong, cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and editor Nicholas Monsour. Michael Abels’ score opts for some Herrmannesque shrieks from the violins, along with a pounding throb meant to keep the tension level high.
There is a great deal of talent on display, both in front of the camera and behind it, in “Us,” but sad to say, overall the result resembles nothing less than one of the movies M. Night Shyamalan made during his long off period. One hopes that Peele won’t fall into the trap that Shyamalan did, trying to keep making pictures that followed a genre formula promising a greater and greater payoff each time. Hitchcock could get away with that, but most often it’s a losing strategy, and Peele is too capable a filmmaker to get stuck in a single groove. If he attempts something different next time around, the result could be surprising—and much more satisfying than this disappointing misfire.