Reviewer’s Note: Once again, living outside of the US means movies open at different times. Having finally had the opportunity to view Nope three weeks after its American release, this review will discuss the merits of the film and analyze (a couple of) the apparent themes presented. While there are no specific spoilers, some character and plot details may be too revealing for those who have yet to see the film, such as those in countries where it still hasn’t opened.
Few recent mainstream directors have invited interpretation more than Jordan Peele. His very first feature, Get Out, was an immediate horror classic, complete with numerous references and Easter eggs to previous landmark films, built out of a social allegory about the African-American experience, and single-handedly restarted the horror-as-social-commentary genre. The film opened so many avenues of discussion that it inspired an entire course at UCLA. Two years later, the writer-director’s second film, Us, returned to the same social-horror genre. While not as successful nor impactful as its predecessor, with its less intense focus in both narrative and allegory, the follow-up cemented Peele as a filmmaker of rare skill and ambition. One who, unlike so many others, not only has something to say but baits viewers into interpreting the work along several different lines of analysis. Not a bad legacy for someone who got his start as a cast member on Mad TV.
The trouble with carving out your niche is when that niche becomes either too limiting or too expected. Like M. Night Shyamalan (spelled without reference) before him, Peele has so thoroughly crafted a unique place within cinema that everything he writes and directs or even produces takes on an air of elevated importance. In the same way that a Kendrick Lamar album has to be more than a collection of songs, or a Thomas Pynchon book has to be more than a narrative, a Jordan Peele film has to be more than a film. Thus there is no way that Nope is just a summer monster movie. There’s too much in it – the opening chimpanzee attack, the Hollywood backdrop, the eccentric cinematographer, the UFO culture – and it’s too specific – the fictional SNL sketch, the family name of Haywood, the design of the alien, the dream speech, Keith David – for it all not to mean something. In the same way that conspiracy theorists pour over hours of grainy security camera footage for a single clear image, filmgoers eagerly dig into every shot, every utterance in Peele’s work for a way to tie everything together. For all its ambition and quality, this search proves to be the most engaging part of Nope. The movie itself is good. The invitation toward analysis and interpretation is better.
In their introduction to both the audience and the other characters, OJ and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) trace their family back to the jockey in Animal Locomotion, the two-second clip which they cite as the first motion picture, therefore splicing themselves inseparably into the film industry. Yet, intrinsic as they are, the Haywoods have always remained outsiders, unseen by the audience, as often essential to a film’s atmosphere as they are passed over for camels in The Scorpion King, one of many very specific references cited in Nope. In fact, the name of Haywood itself is so prevalent – in the business name, on the horse trailer, on a jersey Em wears – as to suggest significance. Maybe it’s merely meant to tie the family to the jockey (unnamed in real life). Or maybe the name Haywood is meant to evoke a rural feeling. Or maybe it’s a reference to the family being forced to take on an Angelo-Saxon name. Or maybe Haywood is meant as a contrast to Hollywood. Or maybe Haywood’s Hollywood Horses just sounds nice and there’s a funny reaction when white characters meet a black man named OJ. That’s the trick of Peele’s film: it invites interpretation without settling on one.
OJ himself is a stoic and often passive character that could effectively work as an audience stand-in. His use of the titular “Nope” at the first sight of trouble reflects more of a real world response than a cinematic one, as though he is watching the movie along with us. His sister Em, on the other hand, is such a whirlwind of unfocused energy that she can’t help listing her multiple hyphens at the end of a safety meeting. While both actors are engaging, one being overly stoic and the other overly frantic don’t invite much audience investment. Similarly, supporting characters Angel (Brandon Perea), a Fry’s Electronics employee and Ancient Aliens fan, and Antler Holst (Michael Wincott), the only cinematographer who can get the “impossible shot,” at times tread too closely to caricature to carry much emotional heft. The characters are good, but without really buying in to them, like the audience did with Chris in Get Out and Addy in Us, the visually striking horror in Nope feels less intense than it should. Impressive as the horror set pieces are, seldom does Nope provide a palpable sense of dread.
Most interesting in terms of tying story and meaning together is Steven Yeun’s Ricky “Jupe” Park, a former child actor turned amusement park owner and foil to OJ. Both were born into the entertainment industry, but where OJ was distant, Jupe is enthralled. He even recounts the most traumatic event of his life through the filter of entertainment. Where OJ, as a horse trainer, has learned to work with and respect wild animals, Jupe, as the survivor of an attack, believes himself immune to the beast. OJ adjusts, Jupe controls. Again, however, interesting as Jupe is as a concept, in execution the character comes off as pitiful, someone so desperately clinging to his long-faded stardom that he invites his first co-star/crush to a family variety show. As the source of the most humor in Nope, Jupe brings a lot of laughs, however, with a different focus, Jupe could also emerge as the main channel toward the film’s central theme. Yet the lack of deeper inspection makes us wonder if such a central theme exists over the array the film seems to suggest.
What Nope does best with is the threat the characters face. Beginning as a Jaws-like presence, the alien itself remains a compelling mystery. Even at the end we’re still interesting in learning more about it. The creature design as well is amazing, moving from the sleek spacecraft seen on countless tabloid pages to a geometric form closer to the angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion than anything seen in Western cinema. The threat builds so nicely that I found myself suspiciously eyeing clouds on the way home. Second half alien sequences are beautifully filmed, a night scene being the most effecting horror in the movie, and yet, well crafted as they are, there’s a lack of excitement. For me, my heart rate never raced as much while watching Nope as my head did in piecing it together. That’s the trouble when a film has to be more than just a film, the film itself becomes less.
In the three weeks since its release, Nope has been interpreted as a statement on everything from late-stage capitalism, addiction to spectacle, social media and self-surveillance culture, erasure of black history, whatever the audience most fears, and even just a monster movie. My own interpretation, kept vague to avoid spoilers, is an expanded version of the spectacle theme. As a family, the Haywoods created a business on their own only to later see it consumed by the entertainment industry which Em covets and OJ dislikes even as he depends on it. Their first response to the alien isn’t to destroy it or to protect themselves from it but to film it well enough to get on Oprah. In Jupe, we have someone who is defined by being a part of the entertainment industry and lost himself to the Stockholm syndrome of fame. He views his life through a lens and can’t see the danger hovering above him. Similarly, Holst, numbed to his accomplishments, seeks ever greater challenges in pursuit of the “impossible shot.” Even an Angel is a victim having lost having lost his long-term girlfriend to a CW pilot. Then, watching them all from above is an unknowable, uncontrollable, all-encompassing force that literally sucks in everything around it, feeding off what it can use, spitting out what it can’t, in the same way that OJ’s business, Jupe’s life, Holst’s craft, and, eventually, Angel’s ex have all been devoured or discarded. There has to be a reason the alien’s chief feature looks like an eyeball and a camera lens. There has to be a reason why the last shots are characters looking directly at us, the audience, the consumer. Part of it is spectacle, part of it is capitalism, part of it is erasing black artists, all of it together, well, who knows?
The brilliance of Nope is that all interpretations are, more or less, valid. The problem with Nope is that interpretation makes the tension and suspense, more or less, invalid. We want to know what it means more than what happens. Luckily Nope offers enough hints and pokes at meaning, even if there isn’t one definitive message, that we don’t need to twist five seconds of security footage into 2000 Mules. Thus far in his career, Peele has demonstrated an uncanny command of filmmaking. Hopefully, unlike M Night Shyamalan, his niche doesn’t consume him.