Us, being Jordan Peele's follow-up to 2017's Get Out, inspires several questions, chiefly one linked to its status as a "difficult second movie": how do you replicate the impact of a film that became a phenomenon, generating endless thinkpieces on (sorry) "elevated horror", a cool $255 million worldwide, and awards buzz besides? Peele's response has been to come back with something bigger and perhaps a little - just a little - rattlier, but which demonstrates enough confidence and verve to stick us to our seats for just under two hours. That directorial debut was a dinner-party anecdote, a midlist Blumhouse item, and so self-contained it could all take place around the grounds of the one property. Us is a travelogue that develops into a freakout and some sort of state-of-the-nation address before climaxing with a soaring helicopter shot over an America torn, apparently irreparably, in two. It starts, however, among the leisured classes in sunny Santa Cruz, where we find the Wilson family repairing to their inherited holiday home. Dad Gabe (Winston Duke, bulk of a linebacker, bearing of a prize nerd) is in his element, whizzing about the adjacent lake in a clapped-out speedboat. Mum Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) proves rather more guarded, having experienced some childhood trauma in a boardwalk funhouse. Her fears are confirmed one night when the power goes out and a family of four in red valour jumpsuits clutching shears appears in their driveway. It's them. Or, alternatively: "It's us!", as the clan's youngest Jason (Evan Alex) exclaims. "We're Americans!" his masked opposite insists, but only after these shadow selves have forcibly occupied the premises.
This redoubling is the first of several ingenious strokes. For anybody keeping score on representation, it means there are now two black families on screen, surely a first for any mainstream horror undertaking - and the producer in Peele must have been happy to see these eight characters being played by the same four actors. (Our B-movies have traditionally had practical reasons for taking up the doppelganger theme.) If Get Out was a creative response to America's ongoing race war, Us finds Peele considering wider issues of division. A prologue finds the young Adelaide watching a promo for 1986's Hands Across America event, seized upon as a signifier of Reagan-era togetherness; a sticker on the Wilsons' car shows four linked figures. An opening title card insinuates that the interlopers have emerged from the abandoned network of tunnels running beneath America's surface, framing them as a 21st-century variant of H.G. Wells's Morlocks, or the mutants from 1984's C.H.U.D. (spotted in VHS form early on). As organisms, there is something basic, even amoebic about them. New Gabe communicates in a caveman howl; their son scuttles around on all fours. They're groups of cells sloughed off at a prior stage of evolution: no privilege, all id, equal to their quarry but lethally separate - or otherwise Other. Peele makes the Wilsons the masters of their own destruction: our thoughts may be being directed towards those disenfranchised voters who helped sweep Trump into power out of a desire to upturn the status quo. Equally, though, Us could be good-liberal Peele wrestling with his own new life as someone who can now afford nice holidays at resorts staffed by lowlier African-Americans. (Is this why the Betty Gabriel character in Get Out was so haunting - that she was representative of a class the director knew he was leaving behind?)
But enough subtext: does Us work as a Saturday-night thrillride? Broadly, the answer is yes. One of its uppermost pleasures is how the film continually shifts shape; it wriggles around within its chosen genre, as if it, too, was trying to break loose, rise up, run free. (It's alive, and you can't say that of everything in the multiplex nowadays.) At the end of its first act, you have it pegged as a home-invasion runaround, only for the chaos to spread to the Wilsons' well-appointed white neighbours (Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker), and for a TV news bulletin to report that the doubling now extends beyond these families and as far as the eye can now see. That this should follow from an encounter in a hall of mirrors underlines Peele's thoughtfulness and skill as an imagemaker - he selects images that would be fascinating in isolation, and succeeds in connecting them up on some level. That kindergarten daisy chain of people standing hand-in-hand, returned to time and again, attains real resonance and ambiguity: it's an image of solidarity and unity - of one nation, indivisible - which nevertheless looms up on screen as terrifyingly impassable, like the catchers' line in a game of British bulldog. Peele affords his leads a similar scrutiny, finding striking new ways of shooting Nyong'o in particular. Petite actresses with delicately etched features are oft described as being possessed of a doll-like beauty; Peele shows us the flipside of that, how those constituent doll parts might be as disconcerting as encountering The Conjuring's Annabelle in a darkened stairwell. Over two films, this director has given us a half-dozen great close-ups of black actors, making him invaluable in a moment when the movies have finally started to pay greater attention to performers of colour.
If there's a weakness, it's that the humour that lent Peele's debut its barbed satiric edge frequently shortsells or undercuts the tension here - there are one or two too many get-outs, if you will. Adelaide calls out her husband mid-siege for referencing the booby traps of Home Alone; even late into the third act, the family can be heard arguing over which of them has racked up the highest bodycount. There's an altogether knowing revival of the 1995 hit "I Got 5 on It" by Luniz, exactly the kind of big yet semi-forgotten international hit filmmakers grab when they want to prod the weekend crowd. Peele, evidently a child of pop culture, cannot help himself: Us panders to us far more than Get Out ever did, and pandering remains a strange look for a horror movie. It feels about right that the final act should return us to that gaudy funhouse - what we find there is a prodigal director having all the fun in the world with the expensive production design and lighting and animal props he can now afford. As a result, even with the doppelgangers' shears glinting malevolently in the moonlight, Peele's latest never cuts quite as deeply or as incisively as Get Out did, but enough of that fun - the fun of watching a gifted creative making light work of a new medium - transfers across to us to justify the admission price. Here's a movie calculated first to shift a whole lot of popcorn, then to scatter it all over the multiplex floor - but those who come looking for it should find at least a little thematic grist to chew on.
Us opens in cinemas nationwide today.