When I purchased my ticket to see Jordan Peele’s Nope (his latest after the smash-hit Get Out and the subsequent Us), the ticket counter cashier warned me that the film “may be traumatizing.” Surprised by the pre-show content warning, and still not fully recovered from two-and-a-half years of on-and-off social isolation, I replied much too cheerfully: “I’m ready to be traumatized!”
And ready I was. Not only is Nope the first movie I’ve seen in theaters since Cats (perhaps equally thrilling and terrifying)—I’m generally the kind of person who can’t watch a movie without spoiling myself first. I know it’s a cardinal sin among the film crowd, but I just don’t like surprises, in movies or in life. I only started watching horror movies at all last fall, after a lifelong stint of being too much of a wimp to handle jump scares or gore.
Nope felt different. It was my triumphant return to the cinema; it was the first horror movie I would ever see in theaters, and absolutely everyone was saying it’s better to go in unaware and see it on the biggest screen you can find. So I went in unaware, ready to be traumatized. Spoiler: That was the right decision.
Nope follows Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), the inheritors of Haywood Hollywood Horses—a ranch that trains horses for film and television—after the freak accident death of their father (Keith David). The business is struggling, but OJ is dedicated to keeping it afloat, not just for financial well-being but for the sake of family legacy; the Haywoods are (or at least believe themselves to be in accordance with family lore) the descendants of the Black jockey captured in the pioneering proto-film photo sequence The Horse in Motion. Historically, the photographer (Eadweard Muybridge) is known, the horse’s owner’s name (Leland Stanford) is known, and even the horse’s name (Annie G) is known. But the rider remains unnamed—and the Haywoods claim him. As Em puts it, they’ve got “skin in the game” of filmmaking.
But OJ (whose name incites the expected light ribbing) has also been recently besieged by strange lights and sounds—and one day he sees what seems to be a flying saucer zooming across the sky above the ranch. Joined by conspiracy theorist tech store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) and Herzogian auteur Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), the Haywood siblings set out to film the UFO and use the footage—the “Oprah shot”—to garner some fame and enough money to maintain the ranch. At least, that’s OJ’s plan. Em, played with twitchy irreverence by the always charming and effervescent Palmer, considers horse training to be her “side hustle” and is more concerned with gaining enough clout to kickstart her career as an actress/singer/influencer/etc.
Nearby, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star whose on-screen career was cut short by a tragic incident on the set of 90s sitcom Gordy’s Home, runs the Wild West theme park Jupiter’s Claim (which earns some comparison to the first season of Westworld as a site of looming sci-fi destruction with a spaghetti Western backdrop). OJ has been selling horses to Jupe to keep the ranch afloat, with the plan to buy the horses back eventually—but let’s just say there’s a reason that Jupe hesitates when OJ asks when he might be able to do that buyback.
I originally wanted to write a review with no spoilers; the very first shot of the movie shocked and unsettled me so much—betrayed my expectations of the movie I thought I’d be watching so much—that I instantly knew I’d made the right decision coming in unspoiled. I quickly realized, though, that a review without spoilers would be, if not impossible, a deeply unsatisfactory project. Here there be spoilers, so proceed at your own discretion.
The aforementioned Gordy’s Home incident occurs when one of the six chimps who plays Gordy, a loveable sitcom critter a la ALF or Dunston Checks In, becomes startled by a popping balloon and, reverting to his primal drives, goes on a rampage, brutally attacking the show’s cast while the young Jupe hides under a table. The full scene of the massacre, though most of the worst violence is obscured, is the most disturbing scene of the movie (barely edging out another scene in which many terrified people realize they’re about to die). Gordy eventually sees and approaches Jupe, who in his terror can’t look directly at Gordy, instead focusing on a blood-stained and mysteriously upright shoe. Gordy reaches out for their rehearsed fist bump, and Jupe is about to reach back when first responders arrive and shoot Gordy in the head.
This plotline seems at first glance to be irrelevant to Nope’s storytelling aims, and admittedly that thread is never fully tied in—but Jupe and Gordy’s story is thematically integral. We eventually learn, in the movie’s major twist, that the UFO isn’t a spaceship carrying alien visitors but it is itself the alien visitor. The film’s four species, then—chimp, horse, alien, and human—engage in a power struggle that reveals the dangers of the human drive to tame and domesticate that which we consider beneath us, as well as the overall futility of attempting to control nature.
Haywood patriarch Otis Sr. tells OJ in one flashback that some animals “can’t be tamed.” The film seems to suggest that horses can; chimps can for only a while; and this particular alien creature can’t, though it can be wrangled somewhat, as the ranch crew demonstrates when they attempt to manipulate the creature (dubbed Jean Jacket by OJ in a strangely tender reference to a previous Haywood horse) into coming close enough to be captured on film, but not close enough to eat them.
And that’s its one true drive: to eat them. Not just them, but every living creature it encounters. An indiscriminate carnivore, Jean Jacket sucks up everything in its path and spits out everything that isn’t meat or bone (hence the shrapnel, a nickel, that dropped from on high and killed Otis Sr). It hasn’t come to teach a lesson, or to abduct humans for study, or to observe. It’s come for dinner, and it’s going to keep coming back. Its physical form is not unlike a manta ray with a single orifice, the vacuuming mouth that also serves as an eye.
Thus we see another of the film’s major themes: consumption. Animals used for consumption, Nope suggests—whether visual or dietary—will fight back when possible. Gordy rejects the camera’s gaze as Jean Jacket rejects the camera’s gaze; OJ, Em, and even their horses attempt to reject literal digestion.
Jupe, meanwhile, seems to want very badly to be consumed—in whatever way possible, consciously or not. It’s all he knows. Having been effectively ejected from Hollywood after being tainted by association with Gordy, he’s spent his whole life attempting to make his way back into the public eye. Now, he’s been baiting the creature with horses purchased from OJ, like feeding a stray so it comes back, in the hopes that he can revive his fame by drawing large crowds to see a UFO. When the creature arrives for his first live showing, though, his bait (a horse named Lucky, who may be aptly or ironically named depending on which character you are) refuses to exit the stable to be devoured. Realizing there’s a much larger meal just behind the horse, the creature sucks the entire crowd, including Jupe and his family, up into its eye-mouth. (So he does make it back into the public eye, I suppose.)
Jupe seems rapturous, almost beautific, when he realizes he’s about to be abducted, though he doesn’t yet know he’s literally going to be consumed. The truth is that in pursuit of fame, and perhaps subconsciously driven by attempts to recreate his unresolved trauma, he ultimately meets the fate he avoided as a child: being destroyed and devoured by a creature you’ve tried to package for entertainment. He puts a former castmate—now badly disfigured, as Gordy ate much of her face—in the same position. She survived back then, but not now.
OJ and Em’s motivations are also complicated. By the end of their journey, they’re driven not just by the craving for money and fame, but the burden of proof: a compulsive, nearly maniacal desire to document what they’ve experienced, what they’ve suffered. They’ve got skin in the game of the history of film, and they’re claiming their right to be remembered. They stake that claim, of course, through visual media, attempting to consume Jean Jacket right back, though it evades most of their attempts by way of fast travel and electrical interference. In comes Antlers Holst with the analog film technology necessary to capture Jean Jacket on camera.
Jordan Peele once said, while discussing Get Out, that “humanity is the monster in my films.” But humans aren’t really the monsters here—except maybe insofar as the creature acts as a metaphor for the machinations of Hollywood, coalesced into existence by human (specifically American) hunger for money, fame, and attention. Sure, Gordy is being used for entertainment, but we don’t get any indication that Gordy is being mistreated on set—only that, eventually, he will succumb to his natural urges, and that humans are foolish for expecting him not to. The horses under OJ’s care don’t face any problems that aren’t caused by the extraterrestrial arrival (though under Jupe’s care, of course, it’s a different story). The monster is the monster, and humans, though flawed, save the day. Not only that, but they’re worth saving.
The metaphors, then, get a little mixed. It’s worth noting, though, that Peele has expressed frustration with the perception that his projects will always be concerned primarily with social commentary; though he considers the Black experience and its politics to be integral to his work, sometimes a guy just wants to make a popcorn movie. The movie satirizes the blockbuster, but it’s still a blockbuster.
Many reviews have fairly characterized Nope as “Spielbergian,” a fair comparison given that the movie contains both subtle and obvious references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., with the movie’s entire third act being more than anything a love letter to Jaws (which almost veers into a very unlikely Seabiscuit). The film also owes a lot to M. Night Shyamalan, especially Signs, other UFO blockbusters like Contact, Arrival, and Independence Day, and a whole slew of campy 50s sci-fi movies including The Thing from Another World (and its classic 80s horror remake The Thing). Further references include the Black cowboy film classic Buck and the Preacher, the 1988 anime Akira, and The Wizard of Oz.
This is a film-lover’s film, a filmmaker’s film. It seems that Peele has reached the stage of his career where creators begin to make art about their art, a choice that can either be fruitfully meta or catastrophically introspective. The balance here wobbles a bit but ultimately falls on the right side. Its saving grace, I think, is that OJ and Em aren’t filmmakers, despite their connection to the industry—that position gives stakes to their attempts to document reality. They have the same tools the rest of us have: cell phones and whatever cameras you can get at Best Buy.
To its benefit, Nope avoids most of the common UFO movie hallmarks: meddling law enforcement and government bodies, skeptics to be swayed or unswayed. It’s a truly original take on and possibly a game-changer for the genre. Its formal conception of the alien entity is completely new while still paying homage to the tropes of yore: the flying saucer and the abduction.
Despite these accomplishments, the film isn’t perfect. Jean Jacket falls into the classic movie monster trap: it becomes much less scary when you can see it clearly, and paradoxically the bigger it gets the less realistic and less threatening it feels to viewers. (Add that to the Consumption tally; Jupe refers to the alien(s) as “the Viewers.”) The alien’s physical mechanics sometimes seem just this side of sloppy—why doesn’t it eat you if you’re not looking at it? How does it know whether or not you’re looking? I know, I know, it’s a metaphor for the gaze, don’t take it so literally—thank you, Laura Mulvey who lives in my head. But I’d like to at least be able to tell whether the alien can physically see or uses some other sense (a la echolocation). Worldbuilding, etc.
Indeed, given that the world of Nope includes the whole unexplored depths of space, sometimes the story opens up can of worms after can of worms, establishing ideas that immediately turn back into questions:
Are there more aliens, like this one or otherwise? If so, are they anywhere near Earth? Where did this one come from? Will OJ and Em (and, if their story is believed, the rest of the world) live the rest of their lives in fear that more aliens will come for them? Was any of Holst’s film spit out and salvageable, and will it be found and used as further evidence?
Peele doesn’t answer any of these questions, nor does he seem concerned about even gesturing towards possible answers. I admire the bravado, and his ability to focus in and say “here’s the border of the story I’m telling, no further”—but when the story itself is pushing at those boundaries, it might be best to fill in a few of the blanks, or at least give the audience enough ammunition to come up with their own theories.
Nope is also just very different from Peele’s other films, though it maintains his trademark mix of humor and horror. He trades his customary cinematographic claustrophobia for the agoraphobia of daylight and expanse (with a few notable exceptions). It’s not Get Out, and it’s not Us, nor should it be—but audiences expecting more of the same quiet, intellectual, politically-oriented, psychological thrills might be confused by what could by some definitions be called a fun but fairly standard summer blockbuster.
That said, those expecting blood will be kept waiting but ultimately not disappointed. People die, horrifically and in a variety of ways. Blood drips and oozes; screams abound. The middle of the film is home to a number of humorous fake-out jump scares, including a praying mantis, Barbie Ferreira having a light snack, and an affectionate parody of the pivotal scene from Signs plus the first appearance of the eponymous alien of Alien. The most disturbing scenes don’t rely on jump scares at all, mostly just slow-burning tension and the knowledge of things that are yet to come.
Kaluuya’s trademark thousand-yard stare, equally perfect for both deadpan humor and abject terror, as always nearly requires its own billing. It’s easy to tell that the role of OJ was written for him; he rides the balance of Peele’s complex genre instincts with ease. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Peele movie without a song altered for maximum creep factor; this time it’s Corey Hart’s 80s hit “Sunglasses At Night,” played by a car radio slowed down to a deep crawl by electromagnetic interference.
Nope opens with an epigraph: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” Nahum 3:6—certainly not one of the most oft-quoted verses. But spectacle, indeed, is at the film’s core: what we sacrifice in order to witness or become objects of spectacle, how spectacle is formed, why we might crave it, and why it may ultimately be a futile pursuit. Eye (Jean Jacket) consumes eye (human with camera); spectacle (a sitcom starring a chimp) becomes spectacle (the chimp goes on a killing spree).
Mass death, both at the hands of humans and the hands of natural but avoidable forces, is an unfortunate but major element of American reality in 2022, and it has its place in Nope, mostly caused when characters become too invested in spectacle to get out of harm’s way. Then again, OJ and Em do end up succeeding in their quest: They get the Oprah shot. Whether they receive any benefit from capturing Jean Jacket on film—or for capturing and killing it—remains unseen. Was all the sacrifice worth it? Also unknown. But the film’s ultimate moral, if you’re looking for one, is simple: Be careful what you watch. It might be watching back.