Briefing

Nope, explained

What to make of Jordan Peele's latest dazzling spectacle

Jordan Peele's mysterious new film Nope is finally here. What happens in the director's most ambitious movie yet, and what is he trying to say? Let's break it down — with major spoilers ahead

Close encounters

The biggest question going into Nope was whether it was, in fact, an alien movie, and if so, what the aliens would look like. But Jordan Peele offers a clever twist on the genre: There aren't aliens in the UFO. The UFO is the alien. 

Yes, the apparent spaceship appearing at OJ and Emerald Haywood's ranch is itself an alien creature, which hasn't been abducting its victims but devouring them, with their chewed-up, bloody remains raining across the sky — a flying purple people eater, if you will. 

But OJ makes a key discovery: like an animal, you can avoid attracting the creature's attention by not looking directly at it. This revelation allows OJ and Emerald to successfully defeat the "UFO," tricking it into devouring a giant balloon that explodes inside its body while capturing the whole thing in a photo. 

Monkeying around

The biggest curveball Peele throws us, though, concerns a subplot involving Steven Yeun's character Jupe, a former child star. He was on a sitcom called Gordy's Home starring alongside a chimp named Gordy, but the animal went wild on set one day and shockingly attacked Jupe's co-stars. 

It might seem like a bit of a tangent, but the plot serves a few main purposes. For one, Jupe's encounter with Gordy parallels the characters' encounters with the UFO, and in both cases, the key to surviving is not looking directly into the animal's eyes. Indeed, Jupe avoids Gordy's eyes while hiding under a table. 

The fact that Jupe survives that attack wrongly makes him believe he'll also be able to tame the predator in the sky. "I believe they trust me," Jupe says of the aliens, recalling the fact that Gordy seemingly trusted him by going for a fist bump before being shot. Gordy's attack was sparked by popping balloons, echoing the creature being defeated by a balloon. 

More importantly, though, the Gordy backstory connects to Nope's main theme: spectacle. 

Are you not entertained? 

Nope is Peele's first attempt at a summer blockbuster, a filmmaking spectacle meant to be seen on a giant IMAX screen. But the movie is also a commentary on spectacle, questioning our thirst for it and examining what the desire to create it can drive people to do, hence the Bible quote that opens the movie: "I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle."

Jupe grows obsessed with creating spectacle for an audience using the UFO, and his backstory speaks to the idea of tragedy being commercialized and turned into entertainment. The Gordy attack is incredibly disturbing to watch, yet we learn it became just an amusing pop culture artifact, inspiring SNL sketches and MAD Magazine covers to feed a morbidly curious audience. 

Most disturbing of all, Jupe seems excited about this, going on and on praising the SNL sketch based on a real tragedy that happened to him. He's concluded that creating spectacle at all costs is what will keep a person relevant, something he's especially driven to do after his acting career stalled. In the present, he's once again trying to create shocking, violent entertainment using an animal he believes he can control — maybe even inspiring another SNL sketch. 

The Haywoods are similarly drawn to create spectacle in hopes of achieving fame. In key moments where their lives are at risk, they immediately pull out their phones or make sure their cameras aren't obscured, hoping to capture not just any old proof of the UFO, but an "impossible shot," incredible footage that will dazzle viewers. 

With Nope, Peele himself creates a spectacle, entertaining us with stunning imagery and bloody violence that's worth going to the theater for. But he's also putting under the microscope the idea of doing whatever it takes to entertain, skewering the tendency to turn horrifying events into content to be consumed and our desire to watch that content. We as the audience aren't blameless since we're the ones demanding this spectacle be produced, and the film suggests perhaps the solution is to not look. Heck, Jupe even calls the aliens in the sky "the viewers." 

'They can't erase that'

Peele centers Nope's narrative around a real piece of history: "The Horse in Motion," a series of images of a Black man on a horse that, assembled together, created the illusion of movement. But the film notes the identity of this Black man isn't widely known, and Peele underlines that this person of color who played a crucial role in the birth of film has been erased from Hollywood's history. 

But in plotting to capture the UFO footage, OJ remarks that "what we're about to do, they can't erase that." Peele's final shot revealing that OJ is alive and sitting on his horse is a triumphant echo of "The Horse in Motion," possibly suggesting this Haywood, having captured proof of alien life, won't be erased from history like his great-great-great grandfather — though whether OJ really survived or whether this is Emerald's fantasy is up for debate. 

Hollywood will chew you up and spit you out

Nope also serves as one big commentary on filmmaking and working in Hollywood.

Peele pays tribute to workers in the industry that go largely unrecognized by the public, including cinematographers and horse trainers, who pour their blood, sweat, and tears into delivering for an audience. The Haywoods' decision to risk their lives to film the UFO mirrors the way a film crew will sometimes put in days of work just to get one perfect shot (and the Haywoods even use an IMAX camera, just like Peele used to make Nope).

Peele also explores how Hollywood can be an unforgiving place to work, showing how Jupe has gone from being an actor on top of the world to operating a theme park in the middle of nowhere. Heck, the Haywoods should be Hollywood royalty at this point but instead are just barely making ends meet, and they have to resort to a crazy scheme in an attempt to climb to the "top of the mountain" and be recognized for their work. It's hard not to think of, for example, the visual effects artists whose names viewers will never know but who work under sometimes brutal deadlines to create the spectacle we see in any given summer blockbuster. If this is the way the industry is going to treat its workers, maybe "we don't deserve the impossible," as Antlers Holst declares before his death. 

But notably, Peele ends Nope by having the audience cheer over the Haywoods getting their impossible shot, even if the public's reaction to it is left to our imagination. Hollywood, the film suggests, may be a business that will chew you up and spit you out, not unlike what the creature does to its victims. But when a team of artists working together successfully captures something that incredible on screen, boy is it satisfying.

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