The Hair-Raising Spectacle of Nope
Jordan Peele wants you to stare.
Peele’s third film, Nope, is a bombastic spectacle that demands our attention while simultaneously despising us for our inability to look away. Veering upwards from the earthly and subterranean horrors of Get Out and Us, Peele melds the unwavering awe of sci-fi with his usual terrors, creating something so grand we can hardly take our eyes off it – and that’s the point. Nope is, on the one hand, a traditional alien invasion story meets scrappy get-the-team-together western; on the other, it’s an indictment the media machinery that converts and commodifies real-life trauma for profit. Hollywood wins by convincing us to look at instead of to feel the atrocities of every-day life. Nope demands our eyes if only to open them just a little bit wider.
It’s no coincidence that Nope opens with two moments of severe trauma. After a blinkered but harrowing prologue documenting the aftermath of a decades-old raging sitcom chimp incident, O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) watches his father die in a freak accident that sees an assortment of pocket change and house keys rain down from the sky. Six months later, O.J. and his sister Em (Keke Palmer) struggle to keep their father’s animal wrangling business alive. Haywood’s Hollywood Horses was Otis Senior’s small way of owning something in an industry that habitually exploits behind-the-scenes workers – particularly Black crew like the Haywood family – and profits off both their work and their stories. But amidst a downturn in business, O.J. has begun selling off horses to Jupe (Steven Yeun), the owner-operator of Jupiter’s Landing, a nearby western-themed tourist trap.
It’s here that these two stories of trauma are connected. Once upon a time, Jupe was the child actor who watched a seemingly trained chimpanzee murder or maim the rest of his cast-mates as he hid under a table, a wide-eyed observer to a very real tragedy. Fast forward two decades, and Jupe hasn’t processed a dose of this experience – he keeps relics from the set in a private room and charges tens of thousands for rubber-necking tourists who want a glimpse at the source of his pain. Hollywood covered up the incident and continued capitalizing on Jupe’s fame; he might as well get a cut of the spectacle porn. It’s no surprise that when he becomes aware of an extraterrestrial presence in the area, he immediately tries to monetize it with weekly, alien-themed shows for his captive and captivated audiences.
In their own way, Em and O.J. follow the same path. When O.J. spots the flying object, the siblings team up with a tech wizard from their local Fry’s (Brandon Perea) and an over-the-hill cinematographer (Michael Wincott) in an attempt to secure the perfect “Oprah shot” before the rest of the world descends on their Podunk valley town. Peele offers a light touch on the aftermath of Otis Senior’s death, but ultimately the search to discover and find proof of this alien being is not just a for-profit venture, but an attempt to find some meaning in their father’s death – the so-called “bad miracle.” We turn our most horrifying experiences into spectacle so that we can cope with them from a distance.
And here’s where Nope genre-splits in innovating, thrilling ways. Jupe welcomes the extraterrestrial by trying to exploit it for immediate profit – his experience is played by Peele as straight horror, including in one of the most bone-chilling sequences of the year, with a sound design that will haunt you for weeks. O.J. and Em respect the visitor and seek only to capture its existence – O.J. even refuses to look it in the eye – and their stretch of the film’s back half is a mix of sci-fi and western. Where Jupe demands that his audience look up, Em and O.J. draw our eyes to them, to their ragtag group’s efforts to do the impossible. For once, the behind-the-scenes team is more important than the spectacle in front of the camera.
Speaking of the goings-on behind the scenes, Nope offers some of the most visionary filmmaking in Peele’s short career. Longtime music partner Michael Abels – who brought the tight, sparing strings to life in Us – puts together a perfect blend of sweeping and thrilling, even adding in a dose of Morricone-style Western. The creature design is truly breathtaking, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera captures the chilling beauty of the deep blue nighttime sky. And while some of the character development is lacking – though Jupe might be Peele’s best individual creation – the acting more than fills in the gaps, with Kaluuya’s do-your-job emotional withholding (a perfect Hawksian protagonist) mixing well with Palmer’s full-to-the-brim pathos.
No matter what you’re seeking from Nope, you’re likely to find it. Be it a popcorn alien movie or a vehicle for ideas that will confront you, Jordan Peele’s third film wraps everything around a single idea: spectacle.