‘Us’ contributes to changing shape of cinematic ‘other’

Jordan Peele’s sophomore film “Us” remains in his chosen area of social commentary horror. His two films redefined the genre. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jordan Peele’s sophomore film “Us” is currently playing in theaters across the world, and has captured the praise of critics and fans alike. The movie comes on the tails of Peele’s acclaimed 2017 directorial debut, “Get Out,” and it follows a Black family of four, who are thrust into a harrowing game of cat-and-mouse with evil “twin” versions of themselves who are determined to kill and replace them.

Already, film journalists and YouTube video-essayists have scrambled to produce content which attempts to unravel Peele’s tapestry of symbolism and deliberate storytelling. The film is indeed a richly layered work, and it grapples with the complicated psychological, racial and cultural aspects of modern life. However, the symbolic premise of “Us” is fairly straightforward: The twisted doppelgängers of the family are the embodiments of evil, a wickedness that originates somewhere within the family itself.

In the allegorical universe of “Us,” the domestic comforts of our lives are inextricably linked to an equal and opposite oppression and pain, neither of which can exist without the “other.” In this way, the “other” and the familiar are equated, mirror images of one another.

I see “Us” as a continuation of a trend in modern cinema, particularly in American horror and science fiction films. The movie represents a shift in the traditional storytelling technique of “othering” the threat to the protagonists of the story, constructing it as an affront to our collective ideas of decency, culture and humanity. This is why movies like “King Kong” (1933) and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) portray in-human monsters kidnapping helpless white women—they are coded representations of xenophobic anxieties shared by many Americans at the time of the films’ creations (and many still today).

However, movies like “Us” show that the way popular media designates the “other” is undergoing a change. The evil in “Us” does not take the form of an ugly, foreign monstrosity, but instead is familiar, reversing one of the horror film’s most basic conventions. The effect is powerful: Could we be the ones responsible for creating and perpetuating our own social anxieties?

One especially useful resource for an investigation into the cinematic conception of the “other” is the alien invasion narrative. Media which uses an alien invasion as a major plot element is almost unavoidably reflective of the political climate in which it is created, and captures the fears of a giv-
en audience at a given time. The first film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “The War of the Worlds” was released in 1953, on the heels of World War II and during the mounting technological tensions of the Cold War. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the same novel, released in 2005, drew on the new aesthetic vocabulary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the amateur footage that captured them.

The near-grayscale color palette and nihilistic tone were symptoms of a shift in the American national consciousness; nationalistic ideals seemed like an irretrievable fantasy. As a result, a movie like Roland Emmerich’s 1996 “Independence Day,” a love letter to the U.S. armed forces and an un- subtle monument to American exceptionalism, becomes an empty gesture. After the events of Sept. 11, the “Independence Day”-style narrative is unable to faithfully capture the national zeitgeist, and the nation’s taste for cinematic depictions of large-scale destruction disappears for several years, prompting hasty edits of sundry TV shows and movies (Vox, “Movies, patriotism, and cultural amnesia: tracing pop culture’s relationship to 9/11,” 9.11.2017).

“I believe that
contemporary horror
and science fiction
films are emblematic
of a cultural moment; a
fundamental reckoning
of what it means for
something to be ‘other
than.’”

A post-9/11 perspective certainly complicated the relationship between cinema and the “other,” but it did not deconstruct it. It is only with more recent films like 2019’s “Us,” 2016’s “Arrival” and 2018’s “Annihilation” that the relationship between the familiar and the “other” is completely tested, and possibly transformed. If “Us” challenges the traditional trope of the “other” on a personal and emotional level (which is accentuated by its domestic setting and highly personalized antagonists), “Arrival” and “Annihilation” challenge it on cultural and scientific fronts, respectively.

In “Arrival,” like in Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” an alien presence comes to Earth, and its appearance, language and technology is completely unparalleled in human experience. What differentiates the narrative of “Arrival” from that of most is that these aliens are not evil. Our inability to communicate with them is not used as a device to make the aliens unsympathetic—rather, it is used symbolically to explore the very nature of language and communication. The idea of human superiority (as seen in “Independence Day”) is inverted, as the aliens possess great knowledge which they intend to share with humanity. Meanwhile earthly nations misinterpret their messages (mistaking the alien symbol meaning “tool” for “weapon”) and quickly resolve to launch an attack (certainly parallels can be drawn here to the U.S. invasion of Iraq). This is an essentially post-colonial interpretation of the alien invasion narrative, wherein a group which sees itself as the dominant race (i.e. humans) fails to appreciate the value of another race because they rely on their own cultural standards in order to measure the value of the “other.”

“Annihilation,” a sci-fi horror film in which a meteorite introduces alien life to Earth, flips otherness in terms of its biological implications. The zone around the meteorite’s crash site becomes a zoo of
strange, perverted imitations (not unlike “Us”) of local flora and fauna. A number of terrifying beasts attack the main characters, but it eventually becomes clear that the alien presence does not have an evil agenda any more than a cancer cell does. It only does what it is genetically programmed to do. “Annihilation,” like “Arrival,” demonstrates the futility of imposing a traditional schema onto an untraditional situation, and the absurd self-delusion of imagining an us-versus-them dynamic as something coded into nature.

In summary, I believe that contemporary horror and science fiction films are emblematic of a cultural moment; a fundamental reckoning of what it means for something to be “other than” and the legitimacy of hierarchies built on those designations. This reckoning entails a new relationship with American nationalism, American imperialism and American cultural identity at large.

The American National Election Study, which collects data on Americans’ political attitudes, has found that millennials have less attachment to American patriotic symbols than the generations before them, and only 58 percent of millennials report that they “love America,” compared to 81 percent of the Silent Generation, who are in their 70s and 80s (The New York Times, “Younger Americans Are Less Patriotic. In Some Ways,” 07.04.2014). Following the U.S. government’s catastrophic mishandling of the war in Iraq, and the growing awareness of deeply rooted inequalities within America and beyond, a shadow of doubt has been cast on the convenience of pointing to a foreign entity and blaming it for all social ills. This same doubt is reflected in the creative outputs of horror and science fiction writers and directors, whose works, like the twins in “Us” or the creatures in “Annihilation,” serve as twisted reflections of their audiences.

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