In Fear of Finding “Us”

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** Warning this post contains major spoilers to Jordan Peele’s “Us”. I’d really, really suggest you watch the film before proceeding. ***

What if we are not who we think we are? What if we are not who we claim to be?

I believe Jordan Peele asks several of these questions in his latest film, “Us”. Peele in a recent interview remarked that his idea for this film came about as a kid when he used to walk the subways of New York and envision a person across the tunnel, standing and staring back at him, who looked identical to himself. He claims this to be a universal human terror: seeing ourselves when we know that what we see can’t really be us.

Adelaide at one scene in the film expresses to her husband (Gabe) that as a child she encountered this very terror. She saw herself and felt within her bones that that version of herself would one day catch up to her. There’s an apocalyptic vibe to this film which stands alongside its home-invasion, horror format. The first act trembles with the sense that something is coming, and that something demands to be exposed.

If you’ve seen the film then you know the conspiracy. The government has secretly been cloning humans and keeping them hidden in underground tunnels. And the cloning has not worked out as expected. Rather than creating another soul in the process, the cloning has created two bodies that can only share the same soul. These clones have been imprisoned underground being forced to live the same experiences of the originals yet in an artificial way. Denied real experience, denied real relationship, denied freedom, these clones rebel.

In the ensuing rebellion these clones savagely attempt to murder their counterparts and call it the “untethering”. At first glance, these clones seem to be the “dark-side” of their counterparts, but as the film develops, things seem to become a little more complicated than that.

One of the truly disturbing things in this film is the ways in which the two Wilson children are forced into savagely killing these dark duplicates. It comes at a point in which you can’t help but cheer them on because the things they are fighting seem like ruthless monsters.

There’s a scene though that still leaves me feeling uneasy. Upon entering into the house of their friends, the Wilson’s discover that their friends have been murdered by their respective counterparts. The Wilson parents get separated from their kids, and the kids are forced to fight ruthlessly to stay alive. At one point, Zora knocks out one of these juvenile counterparts and proceeds to bash her head in repeatedly with a golf-club. This scene felt several seconds too long. It intentionally did not fit the comedic, righteously violent mood. It felt as though a line was crossed and forced me to have to address something within myself. What at one moment was self-defense now felt like savage brutality. The family survives the incident and proceeds to drive off but not before weighing out their kill-count to each other to see who got to drive. It earned plenty of unconscious laughs. Peele’s comedy bleeds through this whole film and adds something important to it.

Peele, I think, exposes our moral masquerades. We, like the characters in “Us”, all wear masks that allow us to be who we want to be and to hide the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not have to reckon with. We can prominently display our cheery dispositions and conveniently store the things we dislike underground. Rather than face our own evil, we would rather bury it. Rather than weep over our sins, we would rather laugh them off. Peele’s humor in a similar way helps make the horror more palatable and ironically shields us from having to make moral evaluations of the “good” characters in this film.

The twist at the end of the film is the real kicker though. After Adelaide kills her counterpart (“Red”), Adelaide tells her son that everything is going to go back to normal. However, as the family drives off for what is to be a happy ending, it is revealed that when Adelaide and Red first saw each other as kids that Red forcibly switched places with Adelaide. Adelaide is unconscious of this fact up until this moment which leads us to believe that these two have been inextricably linked to the point of no longer being able to distinguish their own origin or identity. For the entirety of the film, who we thought to be good was in fact bad, and who we thought to be bad was maybe a little less bad. And this drives into question how we are to morally evaluate these counterparts if they do share the same soul as their respective originals. Since these two people share the same soul aren’t their actions coming from the same intention?

So what makes seeing ourselves so terrifying?

There’s a character in the film that stands out to me, however. Jason, the youngest in the Wilson family, appears to have the greatest self-awareness of the bunch and deals with his counterpart in a distinctly different way than the rest of his family. Each family member effectively murders their counterpart. But Jason realizes that he controls his counterpart (I personally think Jason was more in sync with his counterpart than anybody else hence his “lack of attention” and the mask he wears up-and-down throughout the film). Jason in a way realizes that he is his counterpart and leads him(self) into a fire to protect his family. Maybe it’s just the way he holds his arms up as he walks backwards, but to me this scene felt like a surrender of self rather than an attack on another.

Jason sees himself in a way that I am afraid to. I don’t want to see what’s under the mask, and I certainly don’t want to reckon with the evil within myself. I think what makes seeing ourselves so scary is that we see our inadequacies and immorality. We see what is lacking, or we see someone who knows what we know about ourselves- the sorts of things you’d rather just stuff away. Of course Jason is somewhat morally ambiguous as well, but what makes him distinct is that he sees himself honestly. One part of himself is holding the fire and another part of himself is being burned. There’s an honest conflict within Jason that is not occurring within the other characters of this film. And while the others are either fighting with or running from their shadow sides, there’s a very brief moment in which the truth of who he is exposed by just a little bit of light.

 

 

 

 

Westworld and the Violent End of Autonomy

*This post contains some vague spoilers to the show Westworld*

“These violent delights have violent ends…” – Shakespeare

“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption…” – St. Paul

The new HBO hit show, Westworld has received quite a bit of well-earned attention these last few weeks. In the same vein of Game of Thrones, Westworld has a compelling cast of characters, a rich central narrative, and plenty of vulgarities. But this show is not devoid of deep moral and existential commentary that has plenty of significance for a society obsessed with personal autonomy and the pursuit of our true selves. In fact, this show utilizes its premise in such a way to help us see that unbounded human freedom may very well lead to the destruction of one’s own self rather than its cultivation.

In a futuristic America, a Western-themed amusement park is inhabited by A.I.’s known as “hosts”. Wealthy visitors to the park get to experience their deepest fantasies without consequence at the expense of the hosts, which are incapable of retaliation. Within the show, the park is often as advertised: “Welcome to Westworld. Live without limits.” The creators, the visitors, and the hosts themselves, in one way or another, are all trying to experience this, this sort of living without limits.

Anthony Hopkins plays the part of Robert Ford, the creator, director, and human-god of Westworld. While guests come to the park to experience the freedom offered to fulfill their greatest fantasies, Ford utilizes his freedom in creating life and subjugating it. Self-referencing himself as a god, the guests in his park live out of a similar presupposition: we are our own gods and to restrain ourselves would be to go against what we fundamentally are or could potentially be. Two protagonists, Logan and William come to Westworld explicitly for the sake of finding themselves, and there is not much more than blood and severed relationships in their pursuit of that end.  As evidenced by these two characters and plenty of others within the show, one of the fundamental ironies of this assumption is that for us to utilize our freedom we can and sometimes must suppress that of another’s.

This presupposition is hard at work today in our society. You do not have to look far to see another family broken apart by a spouse leaving to pursue a romantic relationship better matched for their truest self. It does not take much to understand why the pornography industry is as large as it is or why the right to have an abortion is being paraded. And the injustice and manipulation of the weak, the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed is as blatant of a symptom as any of a society that is fueled by this notion. The pursuit of our truest self through the avenue of total autonomy crushes anyone who may stand in the way of that pursuit. We may perhaps come to find our fantasies eventually fulfilled and our potentials reached, but can we be confident that this realized self is better than what it was before or are we deceiving ourselves? Is the pursuit of our true self worth the damage it may inflict on others? And if the pursuit of this self brings self-destruction can we honestly even say we found ourselves?

The creation of humanity is hard not to think about while watching Westworld as there are several allusions to it including a massive painting of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” plastered directly behind Ford’s desk. The creation of Man and the creation of artificial intelligence are mentioned frequently throughout the show, yet in a world like Westworld, the fall of humanity takes center stage. The pursuit of our true selves in the breakdown of limits is not just a modern narrative, nor is the desire to be our own gods. From the very beginning, Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the fruit in which God had lovingly forbidden. Satan tells them that by eating the fruit that their “eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” Sound familiar? In their attempt to be like God, to find their true selves, and to have their eyes opened, they brought destruction upon themselves. Instead of finding themselves, they cursed themselves. Instead of finding freedom, they found themselves in captivity, and ironically for Adam and Eve (and us), their true selves were not discovered by escaping limitations.

It is not just Ford and the guests who seek their true selves though. A significant portion of the show is about the hosts attempting to figure out who they are as well. Following the same path of their creators who rebel against their own Creator, the hosts begin to revolt upon realizing what they are—creations used and manipulated in violent ways for the enjoyment of their gods. It is the hosts that get to see in vivid detail the true nature of the humans who created them.

In one concluding scene, the leader of the revolt makes a remark to a sympathetic and seemingly unselfish human (who is a fundamental reason for their ability to revolt) that he “makes a terrible human” and then follows up by saying that it is “meant as a compliment.” As the show progresses, the hosts begin to simultaneously realize their own selves and their own limitations in relation to their limitless creators—which is just as ironic as it is incisive. The humans wanted to utilize their autonomy and so created the hosts without it and subsequently brought about their own violent end.

Yet there remains a fundamental difference between the humans and hosts—one that should not go ignored. The hosts believed their limitations to be evidence that their creator was unloving and were right; we believed our limitations to be evidence that our Creator was unloving and were wrong. And sadly, we destroyed ourselves in believing that our truest self existed outside the Creator and beyond the boundaries He set for us.