Over the past three weeks, moviegoers have flocked to see “Captain Marvel,” and this past weekend, many of them came back to theaters to see Jordan Peele’s acclaimed horror film “Us.” By sheer coincidence, both of these very different films make reference to the same classic 1980s film: “The Right Stuff.”
In “Captain Marvel,” the nod to the Best Picture Oscar nominee comes when Vers — a.k.a. Carol Danvers — crash lands on Earth and finds herself in a Blockbuster Video. As she looks around, she picks up a VHS copy of “The Right Stuff,” which was one of the inspirations behind the film.
“The Right Stuff” tells the true story of the seven military pilots who were selected for the NASA project to launch the first ever manned spaceflight. In a similar way, Carol, an Air Force test pilot, ends up soaring farther than she could have ever expected when she travels into space and becomes a member of the Kree and, later, one of Earth’s superheroes.
In “Us,” that same VHS tape is much easier to miss, and is used in a possibly more ironic and darker context. You can find “The Right Stuff” among the VHS tapes that flank the TV displaying the Hands Across America commercial in the opening scene.
In this case, the can-do spirit honored by “The Right Stuff” and which Hands Across America tried to appeal to is twisted by the horrific doppelganger tale that unfolds. “The Right Stuff,” as well as NASA’s achievements in general, became fuel in pop culture for a paean to unity. In spite of many individual and institutional flaws, the pilots and NASA are able to come together and push the boundaries of human achievement.
But “Us” turns that on its head, suggesting that those flaws and failures tend to win over unity and can-do spirit more often than many of us care to admit. Ironically, the instances in which we do see some unity between the characters in Peele’s film are when it is done in the name of violently defeating a perceived enemy, such as when Hands Across America becomes the inspiration for the Tethered’s bloody uprising against their above-ground counterparts. And the Wilsons, in turn, are only able to briefly put aside their petty squabbles when their doppelgangers force them into a kill-or-be-killed situation to survive.
Two films currently in theaters with two very different takes on one of the most acclaimed space films of all time: one that openly embraces its optimistic tone and another that completely subverts it.
Side by side, they shine light on the ongoing battle between our better selves and our darkest impulses, while also just happening to push Philip Kaufman’s magnum opus back into the mainstream.