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Unexplained Phenomena: Deciphering the Grand Spectacle of ‘Nope’

Unlike Jordan Peele’s previous efforts, his latest doesn’t immediately reveal what, exactly, this movie is about

Universal Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The good folks in AMC Magic Johnson Harlem 9 were none too pleased by the knot that Jordan Peele tied them in at a matinee last Thursday. A screening of the director’s new flick, the extraterrestrial horror Nope, might as well have been an open hydrant amid the East Coast heatwave. But that ending? The question “that’s it?” got lobbed in unison (and with hella vex) from multiple rows as the screen faded to black. Granted, that response wasn’t exactly a Rotten Tomatoes aggregation (Nope is running up the score there). It does, though, point to something hovering over the whole proceedings, and we’re not talking saucers just yet.

If there’s a single common question in all of Peele’s work behind the camera up to now, it’s the oldest one in the book of motion-picture making: What, exactly, is this movie about? You might’ve, for instance, heard of Get Out initially via word of mouth in 2017 or been drawn to Us two years later by that sinister Luniz sample in the trailer. In both cases, by the end of the opening scene, the potential meaning behind all those shining on-screen images had likely transfixed you. A discerning filmgoer has suspicions or theories or a wider cultural understanding of the query put forth in either movie, but there is an answer in each—a respective stop at the end of the line. The real gold might ultimately reside elsewhere. Endings aren’t everything here. There’s a little Cormac McCarthy musing, “There is no such joy in the tavern as upon the road thereto,” found in both flicks. What’s undebatable is that there is a single road.

But Nope is as obstinate and unruly as Lucky, its star thoroughbred. The movie is more of a maze than a direct path. Ostensibly it follows two siblings, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), grieving the sudden death of their father, Otis (Keith David), who’s mortally wounded early in the film when pocket change drops from the sky. The family is descended from the first subject ever caught on video: the uncredited Black man who sat atop the stallion in Eadweard Muybridge’s real-life The Horse in Motion. Emerald and OJ eventually realize the fatal shrapnel fell from an extraterrestrial beast that’s hiding as a cloud above their ranch in Agua Dulce, just miles from Hollywood. They stake their claim to the discovery and spend the rest of the film trying to catch it on camera.

Nope is a prettier movie than its predecessors, with a noticeably bigger budget, but its most head-turning feature is its lack of commitment to a single abiding thesis. For that, the film is worse in spots, better in others, and absolutely distinct from Peele’s previous efforts. The director has said that he’s obsessed with the kind of “give the audience what they want movies” that defined his childhood, hits like Alien, The Shining, and a half-dozen Spielberg flicks. In Nope, Peele follows suit but also subverts the established pattern. For every stunning set piece and familiar arc, he adds more that nobody asked for. In an era of mainstream mundanity, the auteur has crafted an altogether stunning sight. It works because it befuddles.

Nope opens with Nahum 3:6, the seventh book of the Old Testament, wherein God warns the people of Nineveh, “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.” It’s a table-setter and also a herring. A wave of references to performance gone wrong intersperse the narrative: There’s a brutal attack by the primate at the center of a fictional sitcom that nods to a real event; the doomed attempts of one of the show’s sole surviving stars (played by an anguished Steven Yeun) to strike up a new interspecies compact with the alien visitor; and horses brought to film sets and amphitheaters that are discarded at the first sign of unwieldiness.

The crux of the story is the ways people try to commodify the saucer in spite of its untamable and violent bent. Treat it like an attraction instead of a predator, and you’re liable to get swallowed whole. But the pull is more than commerce. It’s hard not to look at each of these characters’ pursuit of the creature as attempts to shroud their own personal horrors—the death of a father, a traumatic childhood episode, an all-consuming appetite for glory—in the beast itself; using it to fill their needs and wounds. To use a Peele-ism, Nope is tethered to a centuries-old lineage of entertainment as a means to rationalize genuine American horror. Pain hides in plain sight. The line between the various rationales the film targets and the allure of real-life spores like TMZ, viral police shooting videos, the very idea of the Western, and even Blackface minstrelsy is so thin as to be nonexistent.

What makes Nope increasingly sticky is that it could also just as easily be a commentary on something like spiritual mindfulness, but in a pop-psychologist, Eckhart Tolle sort of way. You know, not all things are meant to be consumed, to be present is itself a gift, etc. “This dream you’re chasing, where you’re at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you? It’s the dream you never wake up from,” an Ahab-ish cinematographer warns the Haywoods before joining their pursuit in Agua Dulce. There are times when it’s tempting to believe that Nope is really about nature and our exploitative relationship to it, such as the scene when the beast is enraged by being tricked into eating a metal horse. Can a movie with a $60-plus-million budget be anti-capitalist? Palmer described the film as “a character-driven piece about two siblings,” which is true and believable—but then she ended her quote by adding “at the same time, it’s a social commentary, outré film.”

There’s likely to be lots of hand-waving over whether this shapelessness makes Nope a flawed or worthwhile work. Medley is an acquired taste. Plus, there’s the question that follows all of Peele’s creations: Is this better than Get Out? Nope may be more audacious, particularly in an era when everything is so meticulously tested and arranged to provoke the same synaptic bursts. That doesn’t make the film better or worse, though. What we’ve got here is nothing more or less than a director in full bloom, eyes wandering beyond the present toward both past and future. “My biggest fear is someday reaching that point at which I see a lot of artists … where they stop growing,” Peele phrased it back when he was still donning wigs for Viacom sketches. In Nope he tries to carve the unprecedented out of weathered peaks. He makes a thorough mess of things. It’s flummoxing, a sight to behold.