There’s a lot going on in writer-director Jordan Peele’s new movie Us, but Santa Cruz locals will probably miss some of it on first viewing. They’re more likely to be sitting transfixed through the first third of the movie, thinking “Whoa, I was just there on Sunday,” or, “I used to live on that corner.” (I think you know the one I’m talking about, on East Cliff Drive right above the Boardwalk—it seems like 90 percent of people here either lived there or know someone who did.)
For instance, most people will probably miss the Lost Boys joke that comes up in the first scene set on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; it’s 1986, and one of the characters says something like “Look, they’re filming a movie over there!” Get it? Yup, Peele is definitely a huge Lost Boys fan.
But in his vision for scares set in Santa Cruz, he’s definitely topped it (also, thanks for not giving us a fake “Santa Carla”-type name, man). Though most of the movie was actually filmed in SoCal, its Santa Cruz geography is convincing—although you’ll probably be asking yourself, “Wait, where is that house on a lake?” at one point or another.
Peele’s shots of the Boardwalk and its surrounding terrain are just so different than anything we’ve seen. Some of them are so clear and sharp, especially in the daytime scenes, that it’s almost like you can see the particles in the air. No filmmaker has ever looked at the landscape of Santa Cruz like this before.
But then, doing things differently is becoming Peele’s stock in trade. His debut film Get Out re-imagined ’70s paranoia thrillers like The Stepford Wives for the black American experience—which probably shouldn’t have been such a revolutionary idea in 2017, but certainly was.
For Us, Peele is in a Twilight Zone state of mind. The fact that he’s hosting a reboot of the show that starts April 1 is proof that he’s all in with the TZ approach, and the premise of an American family attacked by its creepy doppelganger is straight out of the Rod Serling playbook. But then a home invasion setup makes it seem like things could go in the direction of The Strangers and Funny Games. Chase sequences add a bit of Halloween and Friday the 13th. And a very deliberate reference to The Hills Have Eyes—one of the doppelgangers is named “Pluto,” just like one of the lead mutants in Wes Craven’s 1977 film that questioned whether the “normals” were actually the real monsters—comes to have a lot of resonance by the end of the movie.
Ultimately, Us is a mad mixture of all of those influences. (Even a brief shot of the videocassette box for the obscure cult flick C.H.U.D. turns out to be important! How is that even possible?) Us is both scarier and funnier than Get Out, which is quite a feat, but it doesn’t have the same laser focus as Peele’s previous film. At first, that might seem to be a problem, especially plot-wise, when the explanation for everything that’s happening finally comes around. (Which, ironically, was also the weakest part of Get Out, but it’s even more of a narrative stretch here.) The longer you think about it, though, the more sense even the most outlandish parts of Us seem to make—and a second viewing wouldn’t hurt, either.
Meanwhile, the cast members—who also play their doppel-selves—are amazing. If Lupita Nyong’o doesn’t win an Oscar for what is one of the most chilling performances I’ve ever seen, then what good are Oscars anyway? (I know, I know, but still.) Peele’s social commentary is as potent as ever, and it works on a lot more levels here than in Get Out.
So yeah, there’s a lot to absorb in Us, but that’s why we’ll be talking about it for a long time.
Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright and Elisabeth Moss. R. 116 minutes.