Nope: some spoilery thoughts on the power of spectacle

Nope film poster
Share this Article:

A few (spoilery) words on Jordan Peele’s Nope and the way it explores the themes of spectacle and exploitation…

This article contains spoilers for Nope. 

Whether you call them UFOs, flying saucers, foo fighters or UAVs, aerial phenomenon have been a familiar sight in movies since the middle of the 20th century. Full credit to director Jordan Peele, then, for making such an aged genre staple feel scary again; not since Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, or the lesser-known Fire In The Sky, perhaps, have pebble-shaped alien vehicles felt truly threatening (though it’s probably worth throwing in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival here for their own ghostly presence).

It helped that Nope’s marketing gave relatively little away. The trailers gave us a hint of the premise: horse trainers OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Keke Palmer) encounter something otherworldly floating above their remote Californian ranch. What those trailers didn’t give away, though, was just how flat-out freaky Nope really is: serving as co-producer and writer as well as director, Peele gives himself the latitude to explore all kinds of sub-plots, visual non-sequiturs (or are they?) and abrupt changes in tone and even genre.


Try three issues of Film Stories magazine – for just £1!: right here!

The prevalence of horror in 21st century cinema – besides the superhero movie, it’s one of the few genres people reliably leave their house to see – means that scenes of violence and outlandish gore are commonplace on the large screen these days. What are less common are truly unpredictable movies, like Nope – where, just as you feel as though you’ve settled into its groove, the narrative’s swerved off in another direction with a stomach-fluttering lurch.

Nope could perhaps be described as a compendium of oddities from UFO lore; at times, watching it feels like flicking through a copy of the Fortean Times. Peele heaps just about everything imaginable in his story: early on coins, keys, and other metal objects rain from the sky, seemingly at random, echoing real-world reports of strange weather phenomena.

Later, there’s what at first appears to be a textbook case of alien abduction. There’s the mutilation of livestock (though UFOs seem to be more interested in cows than horses in real life). There are also allusions to UFO-adjacent phenomena like lenticular clouds and weather balloons, with the flying object in Nope looking strikingly inflatable at certain points.

Then there’s that third-act twist: the UFO isn’t a spacecraft, but a sentient creature that just happens to have chosen the area around OJ and Em’s ranch as its hunting ground. It’s here that Nope tips over from Close Encounters to a monster movie, or ufology to cryptozoology, as the remaining cast attempt to avoid being eaten – and grab a potentially lucrative photo of the thing trying to eat them.

And by the time an anonymous photographer shows up on a motorcycle – apparently from TMZ, according to one character’s outburst – we might just wonder what on Earth Peele’s trying to say here. Certainly, Nope lacks the clear subtext of Get Out (racism, subtle or otherwise, in liberal white America) or Us (an exploration of the class divide through the lens of a black middle class family).

This is before we’ve even mentioned Gordy, the chimpanzee that went berserk on the set of a low-rent sitcom some time in the mid-1990s, leaving one child actor horrifically disfigured and another traumatised for life. In the present, the latter has grown up as the proprietor of a Wild West-themed theme park. Never mind Fortean Times – it’s the kind of story that sounds as though it’s ripped straight from the cover of The National Enquirer (it’s also possible that the chimp incident was actually based on real life). So what’s that all about?

Daniel Kaluuya riding a horse in Nope

The running theme in Nope is that of exploitation in various forms, and specifically, how people and particularly animals are exploited in the process of making images. We hear Em claim that her family are the distant relations of an unnamed Black jockey who appeared in the first ever moving image, photographed by EadWeard Muybridge. That history recalls the photographer but not the first horse rider ever captured in a moving picture could be regarded as exploitation.

Meanwhile, the Haywood family has long trained horses for movies – itself a form of exploitation, since horses aren’t always comfortable around the bright lights, sudden noises and weird sights of film sets (something graphically illustrated in Nope’s first act). Gordy the chimpanzee, a wild animal that shouldn’t have been around child actors in the first place, was exploited to make a cheap comedy show.

As it turns out, even the UFO is actually a wild animal that is being hunted, in a way, because the Haywoods know that photographic proof of its existence could make them a hell of a lot of money. Peele has said himself that Nope is about “spectacle”, but the film’s events imply that the spectacle he’s talking about is of a specific kind: the merciless, dehumanising gaze of the tabloid photographer.

There’s a further clue in the Bible quote at the film’s opening: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.” The scene immediately following this is the one where OJ and his ill-fated father (Keith David) are bombarded by metal objects from the sky, which might imply that they’re the subject of the filth. But really, it could be argued that the filth is sprayed liberally in multiple directions: the subjects of the images are reduced to mere objects of fascination, while the viewers of those images are the consumers of the filth – lured by their own curiosity, voyeurism or need for distraction into devouring the latest tabloid story or ropey TV sitcom. (This might explain why Peele makes one of the movie’s last victims a TMZ photographer).

Now commonly described as ‘legacy media’, The National Enquirer, Fortean Times and low-rent sitcoms don’t hold the cultural sway they once did, but our human desire to capture or consume quick-fix, outrageous or strange imagery remains. It’s there in the YouTubers who bafflingly film themselves in Japanese suicide forests in the hope of getting lucrative clicks. It’s there in the great swathes of Twitter users – this writer included – poring over footage of what may or may not be Harry Styles spitting in Chris Pine’s lap at a festival screening (spoiler alert: Pine probably just smiled wryly because he thought he’d lost his sunglasses).

As humans, we are both the subjects and the recipients of visual filth. The sprayers and the sprayees. And we love it, because we’re weird.

Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:

Follow Film Stories on Twitter here, and on Facebook here.

Buy our Film Stories and Film Junior print magazines here.

Become a Patron here.

Share this Article:

More like this