What makes a good twist in a film? When every piece is placed perfectly throughout the film so that it comes out of nowhere, but upon repeat viewings, makes perfect sense, leading you to wonder why you didn’t see it coming in the first place.
What makes a bad twist in a film? When everything is so blatantly obvious, the film is so bland you have nothing better to do than to piece everything together, or upon repeat viewings, it makes no logical sense.
A pair of new films with different goals do their best to create the most compelling story that ends with a killer twist, but end up flawed because of how the rest of the movie was set up. Captive State, a new alien invasion film, falls short of captivating your senses but ends with a bang, and Us, Jordan Peele’s new psychological thriller, treads somewhere in the gray, where although the film itself is rather intriguing, when the twist occurs, you have to scratch your head and wonder if what’s being revealed makes any sense.
Us follows Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family — husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and two children, Zora and Jason (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, respectively) — as they head out to the lake for a vacation. After taking a trip to the nearby beach, Adelaide begins to be haunted by an incident in her past, which culminates in a complete replica of her and her family terrorizing them at their home.
Who are these people? How did they evolve? And where did they come? These questions permeate the viewer’s mind, if not so much the actual players. Not a lot of focus is put into attempting to figure out these answers, though that may be justified, as Adelaide and her family are running for their lives through the majority of the film, so that type of query might not be top of mind.
Every actor is on double duty, playing both themselves and their doppelgänger. I have to say, though, Nyong’o is really the only one worth watching. Everyone else, though decent, never fully captures the intensity of the moment or the confusion and fear behind what’s happening. (I take that back; Alex also does a pretty good job on both sides of his role.) As Adelaide, she protects her family with a subdued strength that is only unleashed when absolutely necessary; as the other, she tones everything back, a shadow of her more attentive double.
But a film like this rises or falls with the third act. I like where Peele was going with the idea, however, I fear that the building blocks he used to create the story couldn’t hold up once he begins providing answers. Unlike Peele’s first directorial effort, Get Out, in which the twist fit perfectly into both the story and the sociopolitical message, the twist in Us was slightly disappointing, partially because I saw it coming prior to the ultimate reveal, but mostly because when I really thought about it after the fact, it didn’t quite fit into the scheme of things.
Us could have been a masterpiece had the writing been tightened up just a little to give the twist some power. There are simply too many questions as to how certain aspects of the reveal could have occurred, and how things eventually played out.
Captive State, on the other hand, can’t seem to make much sense of itself. We’re dropped into the world several years after an alien species has taken over all nations on Earth and created a new world government system in which everyone is tagged with a literal bug to make sure they stay in line. Naturally a group of outcasts known to the local police sergeant (John Goodman) as Phoenix aim to fight back.
Watching the team of rebels communicate with each other is clever and fun, however, it’s also rather confusing, as we’re never sure what’s happening or why specific people are being targeted. Which is a problem overall as no one in the film seems to know what their purpose is. Character development is boiled down to a person’s name as everyone simply runs through the motions of a script without any true character arc. This makes appearances by Alan Ruck and Vera Farmiga a complete waste as they are unable to provide anything of value to the film.
There are several stories intertwined with one another, and none of them get the respect they deserve, including and most importantly what may be considered the main thread involving the younger brother (Aston Sanders) of one of the Phoenix leaders (Jonathan Majors). We jump back and forth from one story line to the next with no real through line, making the film as a whole seem chaotic without a lot of structure to hold each separate piece together.
That is until the final five minutes when everything they’ve been building toward are finally revealed. It almost felt as if the filmmakers were putting together a puzzle upside down, and when finished, turned the puzzle over to reveal the full picture. It’s a revelation that makes sense in the scheme of things and answers a lot of questions (while raising a few more), but by the time we get to it and understand what was really going on, is it too late for redemption?
It only goes to show how good the movie could have been had they spent more time developing these characters and the world they live in and less time trying to hide everything from plain site.
My Grades: Us: A-; Captive State: B-
Next week, new movies include Dumbo and Unplanned. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.