Refrain from inciting what you don’t understand. That’s just one of the many lessons to take from Nope, Jordan Peele’s gorgeously shot Sci-fi social horror-thriller, showcasing the paranoia Black people and Black culture have of the unknown – but also detailing the morbid curiosity humans have of grand spectacle, even when that spectacle is horrific. The movie opens with a gruesome image – a chimpanzee on the popular television sitcom “Gordy’s Home” has gone off the deep end, murdering many of his cast mates and crew members in bloody mayhem. It is very much a sign of things to come – Nope has sold itself as an excursion with extraterrestrials. However, the film eventually establishes itself more as a true blue creature feature.
After the brutal opening, we meet Otis (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Hayward (Keke Palmer), two siblings who shepherd a family-owned ranch. Otis is the introverted one, a horse trainer saddled with the unfortunate nickname of “OJ,” and finds more solace in the stallions he rides rather than human connections. But Emerald is a ball of energy, a rapid-fire wordsmith with charisma to fill any room. Together, they run the family business of lending trained horses for TV and movie productions. But the siblings aren’t as close as they once were, with Emerald infrequently visiting the ranch and both coming to terms with the shocking death of their father (Keith David) caused by unexplained phenomena. Then, even more, strange things begin happening around the ranch as OJ starts to notice an unmoving cloud in the sky. Before long, the Haywards are embattled in a terrifying truth – whatever is up there is watching and waiting to strike.
We know by now that Peele’s movies are socially conscious and bring a host of symbolism and dual meanings that are put up for debate by film fans. Get Out (2017) was his most legible and, unsurprisingly, most popular film to date, with very easily defined themes. However, people may still wonder what the hell Us (2019) was trying to say and if the movie executed its message in an understandable medley. Nope, while a superior film to Us, it will draw similar criticisms and division among cinephiles for many years to come. It is a ponderous, psychological portrait of themes and ideas that may only speak to a portion of its audience. But Peele’s primary claim is a comment on spectacle. The film’s opening text reveals a Bible verse that mocks the downtrodden and the exploited:
“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”
Early on, OJ warns the crew on the set of a commercial that they shouldn’t flash an electronic object in his horse’s eye. They don’t listen, and the horse is understandably startled. There is a consistent theme that the natural order of the world is being interrupted by the need for entertainment. Where the horror comes in is when the natural order begins to defend itself and eliminate its antagonizers. The “Gordy’s Home” tragedy is the opening Salvo. But the thing in the sky may as well be the grim reaper, a nearly biblical comeuppance for those who arrogantly disrespect every living creature that isn’t human.
This is where our protagonists shine through – their abilities to understand their horses prime them to decipher the behavior of the extraterrestrial. Thus, a cat and mouse game commences. OJ and Emerald enlist the help of a tech wiz and a Hollywood cinematographer, played expertly by Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott, to capture an image of the phenomena that could solve all of the Haywards’ money troubles. In doing so, the end goal may rectify a century of Hollywood ignoring their family’s history, as their ancestor was integral to the first piece of film ever recorded. Meanwhile, amusement park owner Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), a surviving member of “Gordy’s Home” with a traumatizing near-death experience, looks to profit from the strange happenings in the area. Unfortunately, his character showcases a lack of growth from tragedy, an inability of culture to move past the spectacle, and a refusal to inspect what we can productively learn from horrific circumstances.
But Nope is more than just an assortment of themes. It is an engrossing sci-fi horror comedy that knows you’re expecting an alien invasion movie and plays on that idea in creative ways. Those subversions range from the initially scary, to comedic, to squeamish and claustrophobic, and to the unexpectedly beautiful. Peele takes his time, assuring every piece of the necessary information is churned out before delivering an orchestra of a conclusion. Palmer dominates the screen, her most visible and appreciated performance yet, which may hopefully garner awards season buzz. Kaluuya is thrust into the less showy part but excels in the quiet strength and ingenuity that it takes for such a mute character to convey emotion and internal information to the audience.
Kaluuya is a great leading man who not only outstandingly gets Peele’s material, but the director, in turn, knows how to film his star in ways that showcase his talent. This is a movie that lets its cinematography get dim, allowing the dark black levels to envelope the screen. One scary sequence sees OJ running for his life, the white of his eyes the most visible body part on the screen, yet his facial expressions are still noticeable and crucial to the scene. In many other movies, you’d be able to tell they’re just on a soundstage with unnatural light, but here Peele can at least hide those tricks.
But Peele’s craftsmanship is apropos for a movie about movies, about fame, about entertainment, and about tragedy that is exploited. Unfortunately, for every Netflix doc, true crime pod, or YouTube gruesome rabbit hole, there’s an escalation of utilizing tragedy for profit. The film’s resolution seems to aim for those profits without disrespecting tragedy or the dignity of a living creature, but the movie falters in landing that plane. However, while the conclusion may not be totally consistent on a thematic level, it is visually awe-inspiring and touching.
Moreover, the film incites interesting questions about commerce and its relation to suffering, as well as our inability to connect with those who don’t speak our language. Or perhaps it’s best to resign to the idea that understanding is nearly impossible on a consistent basis, but we should make space for each other’s freedom and comfort. Nope hiccups a lot and is far from perfect. But many imperfections can be forgiven when the show is this thrilling and this thematically rich. It’s a movie that actively advises against staring spectacle in the eye, but the longer we look, the more things we find.