Jordan Peele’s alien invasion film tackles human obsession with spectacles.
At first glance, Nope may not seem as thematically heavy as Jordan Peele’s previous two films, Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). It may appear to be little more than a classic alien invasion extravaganza — but this is Peele we’re talking about. Of course, beneath the hokey horror trope, there are scarier beasts to contend with: grief, exploitation of personal trauma, and society’s obsession with capturing spectacles for self-gain. Nope is a layered movie — the kind that’s likely to spark eureka moments and warrant multiple viewings to uncover its many Easter eggs. The sci-fi-slash-horror-slash-western flick, centered around BIPOC cowboys, serves as a sort of reckoning for Hollywood’s oft-erasure and dismissal of Black and Indigenous people as multifaceted humans. Only time will tell, but Nope has the pieces and potential to become another Monkeypaw Productions cult classic.
And, as with Peele’s previous work, it’s not for the faint of heart. The film begins with a pair of unsettling scenes: An image of a bloody chimp amid lifeless bodies on a TV set, and the sudden death of rancher Otis Haywood Sr.
It only gets intense from there. After his death, Haywood’s children, OJ and Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) inherit Haywood Hollywood Horses, a ranch that trains and commissions horses for movies. They also have historical heritage, as their great-great-great grandfather is the anonymous Black jockey who appears in Man On Horse, the first collection of photos to make a motion picture. But the stoic, reserved OJ and the feisty, free-spirited Emerald are struggling to keep HHH afloat, and early in the film, viewers get a hint at why: After an all-white movie crew ignores OJ’s instructions on how to keep a horse comfortable on set, the horse acts out — and HHH loses the gig. As always, Black ingenuity gets ignored before things can go well, and it gets all the blame when things go wrong.
To make ends meet, OJ takes to selling horses to former child actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who now owns a Western-themed amusement park. But business isn’t the only thing tying OJ, Emerald, and Jupe together: All characters are dealing with deep-seated traumas: OJ saw his father die before his eyes, Emerald suffers from her father involving his brother in the family business more than her, and Jupe witnessed a horrific accident while filming a hit TV show during his childhood. And when a UFO begins to hover over the town, each of them sees it as an opportunity to get paid — while hoping the trauma will work itself out later. OJ and Emerald are determined to get camera footage of the UFO and sell it, while Jupe plans to add it as an attraction to his theme park.
The film is anchored by strong performances from all three leads. Peele said that he wrote the role of OJ specifically for Kaluuya, and it shows: The actor brings precisely the right quiet, strong resoluteness to OJ’s scenes. Palmer, meanwhile, embodies a free-spirited attitude that contrasts with her on-screen sibling and adds a tone of Black womanhood generally lacking from horror films. And Yeun delivers a palpably off-kilter vibe that really brings his unpredictable character to life.
In Peele’s previous two films (and many other Black horror movies, for that matter), racism and oppression are just as much of a threat as any monster, serial killer, or zombie would be. That’s also the case in Nope, albeit in a more subtle manner. OJ and Emerald are experts in their fields, and they have the expertise and ingenuity to do it, but they’re repeatedly doubted, dismissed, or exploited along the way. And when facing the horror elements of the film stuff, OJ and Emerald show the same common sense skepticism as Black horror moviegoers yelling at the screen. If the utmost common sense prevailed, they would simply sell the ranch and move away. But the Haywoods are focused and fearless in their decision to get this footage. While other characters — Yeun, nameless spectators, and a couple of surprises later on — are motivated by fame, money, and the wondrousness of the alien spectacle itself, OJ and Emerald are determined to solidify their family’s legacy and maintain ownership of their land and their ranch. Whatever their reasons, we know people in the real world frequently risk their lives and safety to go viral. And by the end of Nope, we get the sense that Peele thinks the wide-eyed, tunnel-visioned lure of the Next Big Thing is just as much of a danger as anything that could actually come from “up there” — wherever “up there” is.
That said, Peele doesn’t skimp on creating the sort of spectacle that an alien invasion blockbuster demands; in fact, he delivers on that tenfold. In the first half of the film, the classic aliens-among-us tropes of electrical surges and spooked animals are used to perfection, along with the jumpscares and fakeouts that have worked so well in horror for so long. The rest of the film is just as larger-than-life, jaw-dropping, and Spielbergian as anything to hit theaters this year — a major accomplishment for Peele, whose films have never had such a visual scope as this. His depiction of the unknown is unique, imaginative, and unpredictable.
Peele created an original, fantastic adventure full of laughs, thrills, and scares while also channeling blockbuster films of the 70s and 80s. There are cinematic and thematic references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, and Jaws, among other nerdy or esoteric nods.
In the scope of Black horror history, the presence of predominantly BIPOC leads adds depth to the classic narrative of alien invasions; these characters bring with them stories and experiences of an often-overlooked history. Emerald’s and OJ’s livelihoods were at stake, so they understandably did a crazy thing. Asian men have never been seen as cowboys in American cinema, but we got to see Jupe dressed up as one in a role that wasn’t emasculating.
The slow pacing of the first half may be frustrating for some, but the build-up of tension was likely intentional. After all, higher tension and anxiety lead to bigger scares when violence and excitement take center stage.
At some points, Nope leaves more questions than answers — but that’s part of what makes alien movies so titillating, and what’ll have us scouring YouTube and Reddit for those classic Jordan Peele easter eggs. But as many questions as there are, one thing is certain: The summer blockbuster is just as much of a strength for Peele as the thoughtful horror flick.