Nope

In interviews and promotional materials for his third movie, Nope, writer-director Jordan Peele has explained that the watchword for this project was "spectacle". After two years of pandemic-mandated movie theater closures, and filmmakers' growing fears that audiences would get used to the convenience (and safety) of streaming and give up on the cinematic experience, Peele's goal was to make a counter-argument. To create an experience as much as a story. On one level, it can't be denied that he has succeeded. Nope is chock-full of vivid and memorable imagery, cannily uses cinematic devices to evoke everything from dread to delight, and, in its last hour, delivers thrilling, pulse-pounding action. But this is still a Jordan Peele movie, which means that there's a barb hidden in all that celebration. For all that it is dedicated to spectacle, Nope is simultaneously engaged in analyzing what a desire for spectacle says about us, and about the people who produce it. 

The story is set in and around a southern California ranch that trains and wrangles horses for Hollywood productions. A black-owned family business whose owners, the Haywood family, pride themselves on being descended from the first person ever to appear in a motion picture, a black jockey riding a horse. The ranch is currently run by OJ[1] (Daniel Kaluuya), with the grudging assistance of his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). The two are polar opposites: Emerald is bubbly and outgoing, while OJ is taciturn and withdrawn—qualities that have only intensified since the sudden death of the siblings' father (Keith David) six months earlier, in a bizarre accident in which small personal items like coins and keys rained down from the sky at lethal speeds. In the wake of that loss, the ranch is struggling, and while OJ remains devoted to his duty to the business and the animals, Emerald is more skeptical. While Emerald pushes her brother to sell the ranch, he has resorted to selling some of his stock—temporarily, he insists—to a nearby amusement park, run by Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor still trying to monetize his short-lived stardom in a Western movie from the 90s.

As the argument between the siblings brews and repeats for what is likely far from the first time, the film's McGuffin establishes itself. OJ, in pursuit of an escaped horse, glimpses something saucer-shaped darting through the clouds over the ranch. Here is where Nope sets itself apart from all the other movies of its type (including the ones, like Signs or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that it explicitly references). OJ and Emerald experience the gamut of emotions one might expect from people who have glimpsed the impossible—disbelief, excitement, terror, wonder. But their focus, and that of the film, is not on survival, escape, or even mere proof. What the siblings want isn't to alert the world to the existence of aliens, but to reap the benefits of being first on the ground. To capture a cinematic-quality image of an extraterrestrial that will allow them to write their own ticket, putting themselves at the center of what is sure to be a media maelstrom. 

Other people soon join the project—Angel (Brandon Perea), a bored tech store employee whom the siblings hire to install CCTV cameras and who becomes obsessed when he realizes what they're looking for; Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a wunderkind cinematographer who intersperses commercial work with nature documentaries, for whom this is his greatest challenge. Even as it becomes clear that the aliens are dangerous—as horses, and eventually people, disappear in extremely gruesome ways—this impromptu film crew remain united in the conviction that getting, as OJ puts it, The Shot, is as important as the world-shattering significance of the thing they're shooting.

Of Peele's three movies, Nope is the most messy—multiple themes and ideas, such as OJ and Emerald's dispute over the fate of the farm, are established early in the movie only to be dropped as it approaches its conclusion, and some plot points don't bear much scrutiny—and the one with the least going on beneath the surface—arguably the film's entire thesis has been summed up in its title. That it is nevertheless a thrilling, engrossing experience comes down, first and foremost, to Peele's skill as a director. Hollywood has classed Peele as a horror director (more precisely, as a non-horror-fan's horror director), but while there are some gruesome and terrifying images and ideas in Nope, its overall affect isn't that of horror. The film it most reminded me of, in fact, was its release-date neighbor Prey, with whom it shares several similarities (while also being, in several key respects, complete opposites). Nope does Prey one better, however, in how it slowly reveals and develops its alien menace, starting out with cryptic images (those ballistic coins and keys), moving on to barely-perceptible shadows, and progressively drawing back the curtain until its final scenes feature breathtaking images of some of the most imaginative and mind-blowing creature work I've seen on screen.[2]

It's that gonzo inventiveness that convinces me of something I've suspected since at least Us, that whatever other genres he chooses to filter his ideas through, Peele is first and foremost a fantasy writer. I'm using "fantasy" in its broadest sense, encompassing things like Nope and Get Out's SFnal McGuffins. What ties all three of Peele's movies together is the depth and specificity of their worldbuidling, the details and storytelling cul-de-sacs that he introduces in order to make their worlds richer, weirder, and more compelling. 

There's no better example of this in Nope than the backstory Peele gives to Jupe, and how he elaborates on it. After his Western film, we learn, Jupe starred in a sitcom called Gordy's Home—basically, ALF with a chimpanzee.[3] That production came to an abrupt end when the normally friendly Gordy brutally attacked the cast and crew. The story of this catastrophe is related twice. When OJ and Emerald ask the older Jupe—who keeps a museum dedicated to the show in a hidden room in his office, complete with such gruesome mementos as his co-star's bloodied sneaker, to which he admits paying aficionados—he explains that the ordeal was best captured in an SNL skit parodying it, and then begins rhapsodizing about how well Chris Kattan embodied Gordy. When the film flashes back to the event, it is, unsurprisingly, a horror show (even as the gory specifics are left off-screen), one that has clearly left Jupe deeply traumatized. The juxtaposition of the two scenes not only makes for some typically excellent Peele vignettes, but brings home just how messed up Jupe is in the present. How, for reasons of both financial necessity and his own warped psyche, he has found himself repackaging and selling the most horrible thing that ever happened to him.

As this story and the centrality of the horse ranch suggest, one of the ideas Nope is interested in is the relationship between humans and animals, and especially those relationships that are utilitarian, exploitative, or adversarial. The film is divided into chapters, titled after various animals—the horses at the ranch, or Gordy. The point of that scheme becomes apparent halfway through the movie, when OJ figures out that the shape in the clouds is not a ship, and not an intelligent being, but an animal, driven by instinctual urges such as rage, territoriality, and most of all hunger. Jupe, it transpires, learned nothing from standing in the wreckage of past attempts to monetize a wild animal, and has incorporated the alien into a weekly show in which he feeds OJ's horses to it. That comes to a head when the alien, enraged by OJ and Emerald's attempts to trap it with decoys, swallows the entire audience of Jupe's show (not enough can be said about how Peele realizes this sequence, including some extremely disturbing post-consumption scenes that suggest horrors with a very minimalistic set and props). Having realized what their target is just as it loses all inhibition, OJ, Emerald, and their crew are faced with a stark choice of outcomes: get the shot, or get eaten.

As a central theme to the movie, this leaves something to be desired. Not to get all CinemaSins about it, but the idea of a an animal who has been happily subsisting off one or two horses a week, who suddenly consumes dozens of people, and then comes back for more the next day, shatters my suspension of disbelief to a million pieces. It's a glaring plot hole smack in the middle of what is supposed to be the film's major conceptual twist. More importantly, Nope simply has nothing to say about the emotional connections that humans and animals form, even in the most inhospitable of situations. For all his sense of duty to the animals in his care, OJ doesn't seem to like the horses very much. And no one in the audience of Jupe's shows, which have been going on for months, seems to have had any issues about watching a horse get devoured.[4] 

When OJ figures out that the alien is an animal, he insists that his work as a trainer makes him uniquely suited to wrangling it—he even dubs it Jean Jacket, after the first movie horse he trained. But this ends up playing very few dividends. Despite OJ's insistence that he can "break" the alien[5], what he mainly does is evade and outrun it, while giving Angel and Antlers a good shot. To bring this back to Prey, it feels telling that despite the two films pointing their arrows of predator/prey, animal/person in the exact opposite directions, they end up delivering the exact same type of story in their final acts.

It's more interesting, I think, to consider the animal angle as merely one facet of a much broader theme, that of Hollywood and its periphery. Nope embodies that classic movie trope, the "love letter to Hollywood". But it never shows us the white-hot core of stardom, only the businesses and people that have sprung up to service it, feeding off it and being fed on in turn. It's a film about how living around the entertainment industry can warp your life even if you have nothing to do with it—Angel is at loose ends and willing to be sucked into OJ and Emerald's objectively bonkers project because his girlfriend recently dumped him after booking a pilot for the CW.[6] It's about people who experienced stardom briefly and were left unfit for any other kind of work—among the memorabilia littering Jupe's office is a poster for a reality series starring him and his wife, Amber (Wrenn Schmidt), as if to indicate that his only marketable skill is having once been famous. And it's about a whole host of different groups whose abuse and exploitation are necessary for the Hollywood machine to function. Which includes animals, of course, but also child stars, small businesses, and people of color.

OJ and Emerald's determination to get footage of the alien—even after they realize what it is; even after a torrent of blood and expelled undigestible items showers their house; at the point where any sane person would get in their car and just keep driving—can only be understood in the context of that relationship. Of their bone-deep understanding that while people like them are, in the aggregate, utterly essential for Hollywood's survival, on an individual level, they are completely disposable. 

The film's title references the running online meme—one that is frequently framed as a reaction by black people to what's been termed "white nonsense"—of watching someone find themselves in the middle of a dangerous situation and, instead of having the good sense to back away from trouble, walk towards it with their cellphone camera turned on.[7] But here, it's the black characters who are putting themselves in danger for the sake of getting the shot. What the film suggests is that they are doing this because they realize that it is their only chance of sharing in the rewards that have passed them by. As Emerald points out, most film buffs know the name of the photgrapher who created the first moving image, but only she and her family know the name of the person captured in it. Nope is the least overtly political of Peele's movies, but it's hard not to think of the fact that in the last decade, a very common form of black "stardom" has been in videos documenting black people's suffering, humiliation, and even death, and wonder whether the siblings' determination to film the alien is a desire to take control of the narrative in a world where people like them are more often the subjects of it.

This doesn't always work, to be clear. Nope wants us to be simultaneously won over and scandalized by the way its characters risk life and limb for the sake of a viral video, but it often overshoots the mark. When Jupe announces to his audience that he has dubbed the aliens "The Viewers", it's hard not to groan—it's a joke that seems to have come from a different, more strongly satirical version of this story. The ending the film gives to Antlers is similarly over the top. And a sequence in the third act, in which a motorcycle-riding TMZ reporter (Devon Graye), his face obscured by a mirrored helmet, arrives on the ranch in the wake of the disappearances at Jupe's looking to score his own scoop, and keeps crying out "where's my camera?" after an encounter with the alien leaves him broken and near death, is a narrative dead end that runs the point the film is making into the ground.

Still, at its best, the final act of Nope is a dizzying balancing act, a thrilling sequence of clever planning, sudden reversals, and acts of derring-do that you can't help but root for, even as you're constantly reminded of how stupid and pointless it all is. In a lull before their final attempt to get footage of the alien kicks off, Angel nervously asks the other characters whether they're doing a good thing. They all say yes, but there's a palpable lack of conviction. This is about making bank and they all know it. While you can sympathize with all four characters' desire to, for once, grab the rewards that have eluded them, by the time the film approaches its end, when it's still unclear who, if anyone, has survived, you can't help tasting something bitter in your mouth. The triumph of finally getting The Shot is a mixed one, and when the dust clears and and we learn who has survived and who hasn't, it's hard not to feel that survival, for all that we like the characters and want them to endure, is also entirely unearned. 

That's probably the intended response. This is, after all, a movie that opens with an epigraph of a biblical quote from the prophet Nahum, equating spectacle with horror. Nope's heroes embody the Hollywood ideal of being whole-heartedly devoted to moviemaking magic. By the time the credits roll, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that they are also all monsters.


[1] There's a joke here, but it's a fairly thin one that is made almost as soon as the character is introduced and then never comes up again.

[2] A similar transformation can be observed in Kaluuya's performance, which starts out tamping down on the actor's charisma to deliver a utilitarian, place-holding performance that almost feels like a waste of his skills, and gradually blossoms into a very specific, and incredibly winning, type of hero.

[3] In true Peele fashion, he has produced opening credits for the show, and if you were alive and watching things like ALF in the 80s and 90s, you can practically plot out the show's episodes yourself just from watching them.

[4] There is one exception, a moment during the flashback to Gordy's attack in which he and Jupe briefly connect. But its existence throws a sharper light over the absence of such connection in the rest of the film.

[5] A strange word choice for a young horse-trainer, since I thought "breaking" had fallen out of favor in that field. Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe this is another way in which the film is fundamentally uninterested in animals.

[6] This was a good joke to begin with, but the fact that in the interval between the film's shooting and now, the CW was demolished, and all its shows cancelled, in the wake of the WB/Discovery merger makes it ten times funnier.

[7] Few videos better exemplify the "nope" reaction—and the correct behavior when one encounters a dangerous wild animal—than this now famous clip of a black news anchor spotting a herd of bison approaching his location.

Comments

96RAJ20 said…
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96RAJ20 said…
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96RAJ20 said…
Actually it is mentioned near the start of the over the radio that a group of hikers is missing that search is underway for them so it has food sources other than those horses but the ones jupe provides a stable source and oj does care about the horses it was made clear during the shoot scene besides he is the most emphatic of the characters regarding the animals and that is the 1st time he is performing the show with a live audience so the audience probably thought it was all an act.
S Johnson said…
The way Kaluuya's character insists that you can't look the monster in the eye *even though there are no eyes obvious* I thought made it quite clear that the monster is police, white. Showing that the monster is nothing but billowing white sheets---or should I say, films?---and a mouth/anus combined is pretty blunt, isn't it? The ironically beautiful shapes the empty monster takes may be superficially gorgeous but, again, all there is is the mouth that eats and the anus that spews. Seems to me to be a fairly straightforward depiction of whiteness.

The slaughter of Jupe along with the horrible wife and children *and* the other, hideously ugly, survivor is ironic justice, done at last by the monster white. (The movie seems to treat Park as white because of his success.) Gordy is in the eyes of Hollywood the same as the jockey on the horse and his revenge was not horrible---it's the fist bump between Gordy and Jupe that is supposed to be the ironically understated true, moral horror, the oppressed validating the oppressor.

The agonies of the petty bourgeois businessman stressed with going broke in a cruel marketplace are always very sincerely heartfelt. There doesn't seem to me to be a minute of dramatic tension over what choice the characters will make, to risk their lives for money, though. No-brainer choices are not exciting choices. The ignominious end of the crazed cinematographer who seems to have some fetish for art rather than box office makes the point clear I thought.
the monster is police

This seems a little far-fetched. Peele's movies are rich texts but they're not usually opaque ones, and in a movie that otherwise seems to have nothing to say about policing and its troubled relationship with black people (while having a great deal to say about Hollywood and its troubled relationship with black people), this sort of "secret" reading doesn't seem to make much sense.

The movie seems to treat Park as white because of his success.

Is that "the movie", or is it you? Nope doesn't have much to say about Jupe's race - unsurprisingly, since the role was originally offered to Jesse Plemons - but as we know, casting a person of color in a role inflects that role even if race isn't explicitly what that character is about. It's impossible not to read Jupe's desperate grasping at a return to Hollywood's inner in the context of Asian actors' well-documented struggles to break in, or of his breakout role coming in such a stereotypically white genre as a Western. I'd argue that there's a vast middle ground between "the movie doesn't explicitly acknowledge this character's race" and "the movie sees this non-white character as white".
"Emerald pushes her brother to sell the ranch"

I think this detail is incorrect. The topic of selling the farm comes up after their meeting with Jupe because he offered to buy it from Otis Sr. Emerald is clearly surprised/not enthused about the number of horses that have already been sold, so there's nothing to indicate that she wants the farm sold. During the drinking scene when O.J. clearly lays out how proud he is of his father and his desire to preserve the family business, Emerald doesn't object in any way. She is also (presumably) so incensed/insulted by Jupe's offer that she reacts by stealing the silver display horse from Jupiter's Claim.
When Emerald hears about the offer to sell and realizes that OJ isn't considering it she asks him "how stupid are you?" It's clear she thinks the smart play is to sell.

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