Making Sense of Nope, Jordan Peele's Sci-Fi Horror

IMAGE UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Nope is a lot to digest. Two weeks after seeing the Jordan Peele’s third film, there’s still so much to unpack and I haven’t made up my mind about whether or not to recommend it or if I’d want to see it again myself. If there’s anything Nope has going for it, however, it’s that it’s a film that’ll make you think. 

Peele overcame the sophomore slump when he followed up his massively successful black comedy Get Out with the body-swapping horror hijinks of Us. The writer-director aimed for a hat trick with his latest sci-fi horror Nope, but your mileage will vary depending on how much you want to understand a film with what little breadcrumbs Peele throws your way. And if you love breadcrumbs, you'd better be ready for a smorgasbord.

Photo by Universal Pictures.

Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood, horse handlers who claim that the unnamed jockey in Eadward Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series of photographs is their great great grandfather. They’re convinced that this lineage has destined them for Hollywood fame, or at least Emerald seems to think so. The taciturn OJ appears like he’d much rather spend time with his horses than people, and his contrasting dynamic with the hyperactive, animated Emerald is one of the fun parts of Nope.

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What isn’t fun is trying to make sense of elements that Peele throws in the film that don’t seem to make much narrative sense, like Steven Yeun’s character, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park, a former child actor whose sitcom run was cut short when a monkey went berserk on set, killing and maiming his co-stars. Given that the theme for Nope is our obsession with spectacle—the film opens with a Biblical verse from the prophet Nahum, who talks of spectacle as a punishment—it’s likely that Park embodies that obsession to the extreme.

Having grown up in front of the camera and having been the sole, unharmed actor in a gruesome on-set freak accident, Jupe may have gotten all the wrong ideas about entertainment. He processes the trauma by continuing to perform for audiences and in an inexplicable bizarre twist also has one of his permanently disfigured former co-stars as a special guest in his act.

In this age where we lose hours scrolling through TikTok or other engineered traps on social media, Nope is ironic commentary that demands the viewers’ attention.

Not only is Jupe a distraction from a straightforward narrative, his co-star Mary Jo Elliott, who now looks like a zombie after the chimpanzee attack, muddles up the story even further by being in the audience. It’s momentarily confusing because at first it feels like Jupe is some sort of necromancer, but Mary Jo is just horrifying to look at without being the actual horror herself. Peele is more interested in infusing Nope with symbology in his exploration of our fascination with spectacle than telling a simple story. Jupe represents all the bad decisions we can make in our pursuit of entertainment and on the one hand it adds a layer of meaning to the film, but on the other, it also feels unnecessary.

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The Haywood siblings’ obsession with capturing the mysterious alien on camera is only one of the bizarre human behaviors Peele showcases and in a way, mocks. The two treat the flying alien who killed their father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), by literally spitting a coin into his eye as a potential moneymaking venture more than anything else. In an age where some people film disasters on our mobile phones instead of taking action to help or get out of the way, it sort of makes sense. 

But the fact that the death of a man from a coin from the sky was simply brushed aside doesn’t make any sense at all. Scientifically, a coin dropped from high altitudes won’t kill anyone simply because air slows it down and its terminal velocity won’t be fast enough to deal any permanent damage, let alone penetrate the skull. Nope being a sci-fi horror needs some semblance of logic to work, and too many parts simply don’t work for it to deliver the message as well as it should.

Peele dispenses of traditional movie logic, which is part of the reason Nope can be so divisive.

From Jupe to Mary Jo to the death of Otis, Sr., Nope has a lot of elements that don’t come together well enough to be believable. Jupe has made a spectacle of the mysterious alien, nicknamed by OJ as Jean Jacket, by feeding it horses and was making bank until it all inexplicably goes haywire. Typical horror films follow some rules or logic in order for audiences to get invested, but Peele dispenses of traditional movie logic, which is part of the reason Nope can be so divisive. 

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The one rule the film establishes, however, is that Jean Jacket will go after anyone who looks at it directly, an interesting angle from a film that opens with a Biblical quote. Are viewers then like Lot’s wife, who was warned against looking back at the burning of Sodom? Or perhaps Orpheus, who loses Eurydice? There are enough tales that warn against being beholden to spectacle, but in this age where we lose hours scrolling through TikTok or other engineered traps on social media, Nope is ironic commentary that demands the viewers’ attention.

The film is as confusing as it is haunting, as Peele moves away from the straightforward storytelling of Get Out and Us, and explores his chosen theme of spectacle on a meta level by filming with IMAX cameras and actually having a character in the film use IMAX cameras. Michael Wincott plays eccentric director Antlers Holst, whom the Haywoods convince to help them capture Jean Jacket on film. Holst is so obsessed with capturing the perfect shot that he goes full Ahab in his pursuit of it, adding one more odd scene to a film filled with oddness.

Photo by Universal Pictures.
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Half-Filipino Brandon Perea steals all his scenes and is a breath of fresh air in a film where you’ll tend to hold your breath. Nope can feel heavy at times and Perea’s comical air, as well as Palmer’s jumpy energy, lightens the mood enough for you to power through until the end. 

Nope is loaded with hidden meaning and symbolisms that tend to fly past viewers when you watch it, not unlike seeing a UFO (or UAPs, as they’re called nowadays) that short circuits logic by defying the known laws of physics. Peele doesn’t pander to audiences by spelling it all out but rather allows Nope to stand or fall on its own. Just as Jean Jacket devours anyone who looks at it, Nope consumes viewers who simply can’t look away, engulfing them in an enigmatic and arguably singular cinematic experience that can constern and confound. Although the most sensible advice would be to look away from Nope, Peele has hinted at a potential sequel or spin-off, so maybe facing the spectacle head-on and on IMAX might be the only way to go.

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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