Nope: The Horror of Spectacle (Pt.1)

DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THIS MOVIE AND DON’T WANT SPOILERS.

I’m going to be talking about a lot of details, and give away a number of secrets about the movie that are crucial to its understanding and so cannot be avoided. Trust me, knowing these things before you see the movie will spoil your enjoyment of the film.

Jordan Peele’s Movie Watch List for his actors included two of Spielberg’s biggest films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. Like Close Encounters, this movie has all the trappings of an alien invasion film, and the characters’ obsession with wanting to understand the alien is echoed in the first half of the movie, while the last half has the adventure feel of Jaws with the characters chasing and being chased by the alien. On the surface, this movie may seem like your typical Summer blockbuster where you have an intrepid team of people setting out to capture or destroy some kind of monster, but Peele has a lot more to say than that.

The Basic Plot

Oj (Otis Junior played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (aka Em played by Keke Palmer) are a brother and sister trying to save their father’s horse ranch after he is inadvertently killed by the alien. The Haywood Ranch specializes in training, wrangling, and renting horses for movies, and Oj’s first job was working on the set of The Scorpion King 2. Oj is his father’s direct successor while Em has gone off to Hollywood to make her fortune. She comes back home to help her brother raise money to save the ranch. Oj is the typically strong and silent cowboy type, (heavily coded as autistic to a lot of viewers – more on that later), and Em is his exact opposite, being funny, brash, and massively charming.

Ricky “Jupe” Park, played by Steven Yeun, is the former child star of a series called Gordy’s Home, where he experienced a horrible trauma, and who now owns a theme park next door, called Jupiter’s Claim. Oj has been selling his horses to Jupe to keep the ranch afloat, not knowing that Jupe has been sacrificing those horses to the alien visitor that has taken up residence in the valley for the past several months. After Jupe and his audience are consumed by the alien after his attempt to make money from the spectacle of its feeding, Em and Oj become convinced that the way to save the ranch is to capture the alien on film and sell the photos.

They meet an electronics store employee named Angel (Brandon Perea) who helps them set up cameras at the ranch, but since the ufo (now called UAPs by the US government) produces a field that deadens electrical equipment they are unsuccessful and so decide to call in the director they met on a film set they were fired from at the beginning of the movie named Antlers Holst, (Michael Wincott – he of the extraordinary voice). Antlers owns a crank camera that doesn’t require electricity. After several mishaps, chase scenes, and a few near deaths, Em is successful in capturing the alien on camera and destroying it.

Jean Jacket

This is the name given to the creature by Oj, named after a horse she was supposed to have received training for on her 9th birthday, and which Oj got chosen for instead. Oj names it Jean Jacket as a tribute to Em after she comes up with the plan to capture the alien on film. The alien represents Em’s first animal training exercise.

**Throughout this post, I’m going to use three terms interchangeably, ufo, alien, and the creature, because although we, the audience, still don’t know what it is, it is definitely a living being of some kind. When the movie begins it is shaped like the typical image of a disc-shaped flying saucer. By the middle of the movie, the characters have become aware that while what they are dealing with is still a ufo, it is also a predator that actively hunts other life forms, and by the end, it reveals its true physical form as that of a massive array of drapery with a green aperture-like mouth at its center that sucks up its prey like a vacuum.

The Themes

Spectacle

Let’s start with the film’s opening quote. In the first reference, Peele tells you right up front what the theme of the movie is (which is why I don’t understand some people’s confusion after watching this.) People should know by now that Peele’s movies are not the kind of movies you watch to let the images simply wash over you and hope you reach understanding. They are the kind you must think about and pay close attention to, or you simply won’t understand, and you have to prep yourself for watching the movie this way beforehand. One of the issues with Horror movies, and especially the point being made here, is that people get consumed by the “spectacle” of the horror, and fail to think of the greater themes and repercussions surrounding the absorbing images. The audience members who did this mental preparation walked out of the film with a better understanding and appreciation of what they’d just seen.

The opening quote at the beginning of the movie is from Nahum 3:6: I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle. This refers to two events in the movie, the scene where the alien hovers over the ranch and drops waste matter of blood and metallic trinkets from its victims onto the Haywood’s house, and the ending where it unfurls itself during its pursuit of the two siblings.

The movie’s overarching theme is about how both the viewer and those being viewed are affected by the camera, about how audiences can be (literally) consumed by spectacle even as we consume it, and about the interchangeable nature of seeing a spectacle and being a spectacle. Several times the alien and other animals react to being seen on camera, or by an audience, or by themselves in reflective surfaces, and are startled into violence.

The movie opens by introducing the young Jupe on the set of a TV series called Gordy’s Home. This flashback to Jupe’s tragic past is the key to understanding some of the meanings of the movie. This event is later shown in its entirety, as a chimpanzee named Gordy (which, in the show, had been adopted by a white suburban family) flies into a rage and massacres the cast (all except Jupe and a young girl named Mary Jo) when it is seemingly startled by the release of a bunch of metallic balloons. That Jupe survives this event is important to how he dealt with his survivor’s trauma and the reason for his death.

One aside: Jupe says Gordy’s rampage lasted 6 minutes and 13 seconds. The alien appears every day at 6:13 PM to acquire its sacrifice of flesh from Jupe. Viewers have theorized a number of biblical verses that this could be in reference to, and many of them involve the topic of predators, prey, sacrifice, and how to avoid being such.

The theme of animals that are assumed to be tame or easily controlled, becoming violent, and turning on people are referenced multiple times throughout the movie. In another introductory scene, Oj, while on a film set with one of his horses, keeps trying to warn the cast about how to behave with the animal, only to be ignored (because white people don’t listen to Black people’s warnings of danger), and someone ends up being kicked by it. Like Gordy, the horse is startled by its reflection in an orb-shaped object. The idea of animals rejecting being seen as spectacles continues from there, from Gordy, to the horse, to the alien itself, since the alien only consumes those who stare at it.

These reflections extend to some of the characters too, like Mary Jo, the young girl who, like Jupe, survived Gordy’s rampage on the film set, but with extensive damage to her face. She attends Jupe’s first showing off of the alien while wearing a veil covering her current face, but wearing a t-shirt with the image of her childhood face on it. Like the alien, she is a spectacle who both wants and doesn’t want to be seen by others, and yet she is also a spectator, there to see another creature that does not like being seen.

Oj because of his retiring nature and experience with horses, is one of the first to understand that the alien is like any other predator, that looking it in the “eye” is like a challenge to its dominance that will make it angry. He is one of the few people to survive multiple encounters with it by turning away from the camera-like hole in its underside. Basically, he (and later, Angel) resists being consumed by the spectacle of the thing.

In fact, Oj’s natural tendency to avoid the gaze of others, and not look animals or other people in the eyes, ends up serving him very well, and it is also one of the signifiers of autism, along with his reticence in speaking, and deep focus on his job. When we first meet Oj we see he has his head turned away from the camera and film crew. He has a pattern of rejecting the gaze of others and denying them his own, so it is significant that not only is he the first person to catch that staring at the alien makes it angry, but at the end of the film it is meaningful when he signals to his sister that he will grant the creature his attention. He signals to her both, that he sees her, and that he will see the alien in an effort to trap it with his gaze, buying her the time she needs to capture its image.

Animal Exploitation

Jupe has been sacrificing Oj’s horses to what he thinks is a ufo for at least six months and plans to make money from the creature’s existence by sacrificing a live animal in front of a paying audience. To his horror, Jupe has only moments to realize his hubris in believing that he had tamed it (because he survived Gordy’s massacre unscathed he thinks he has a special power over it) because rather than taking the horse, the alien (like Gordy) becomes enraged at being looked at and consumes Jupe and the audience instead. (They get consumed by the spectacle.)

Jupe dies horribly, in the belly of the monster, while trying to exploit the existence of this creature for entertainment purposes. Just as Gordy was taken from his natural habitat, separated from his species, and raised among humans for their entertainment needs, Jupe hopes to do the same to the alien, and this is tied to his personal trauma because, although he exploits that for monetary gain, you can tell by the look in his eyes that he is not as casual in his feelings about the event as he would have others believe. He is haunted by what happened to him on the set and it has informed his behavior, not just towards his trauma, but his interaction with the alien. He believes his survival of that one event gives him a special ability to tame this new creature. He thinks he has a special connection, like the one he had with Gordy, because he has bribed this thing with Oj’s horses for several months, but the creature has not been tamed, nor has it been trained to come to him because he feeds it. The alien is simply being opportunistic and Jupe’s interactions with the creature only involved him and the alien. When the alien sees there is now an audience it takes the entire group.

Child actor exploitation

That’s not the only connection between Jupe and Gordy. The movie also strongly references the exploitation of child actors. Hollywood has a long history of consuming both the lives of animals and actors and then spitting out whatever is no longer useful, or left over. After Jupe and his audience are consumed by the alien, having consumed too much, it then spits out what it can’t use, (mostly metallic objects like coins, keys, and jewelry), which is how Oj and Em’s father was killed, at the beginning of the movie, when the alien spit out a coin that embedded itself in Otis’ head.

There are also elements of racism in the exploitation of both Jupe and Gordy. One of the nastier stereotypes of Asian men throughout Hollywood’s history is equating Asian men with monkeys. In the sitcom, both Jupe and Gordy are adopted by a white family and both are seen as token comedy relief. The white family acts as if the adoption of a human boy and the adoption of a chimpanzee are equal acts and treat the adoption of Gordy as no different than Jupe’s adoption. The family (and the series) does not respect Gordy as a powerful animal with an animal’s thoughts, and this is part of what causes his rampage. This scene is also a callback to a similar real-life event:

https://allthatsinteresting.com/travis-the-chimp

Oj names the alien Jean Jacket, after a young horse that Em was supposed to be trained on (but didn’t get the chance when her father changed his mind). Jupe named the thing he first thought of as an alien craft, The Viewers. And yes, this is a reference to those of us who came to watch the spectacle of Nope, especially those of us who got so caught in the imagery that we couldn’t understand the meaning of the film, and the voraciousness of an audience that can never be appeased. Jupe spends several months thinking he has pleased The Viewers, and believes he has things well under control, only to find that The Viewers cannot be controlled or appeased.

Symbolism

Mirrors and Reflections

I spoke before in my Symbolism of Film post, that mirrored reflections indicate that a character (or in this case an animal) has a double nature, and reflective objects are a motif seen throughout this movie, from the reflective balloons released in front of Gordy that sends him into a rage, to the metallic SFX orb that is waved in front of the horse which startles it, and the motorcycle helmet of a nosy paparazzi who shows up at the Haywood Ranch and gets eaten because his reflective helmet enrages the alien into consuming him. The creatures in the movie are believed by people to have been “tamed” because they have been trained to interact peacefully with human beings, until they stop doing that, indicating their dual natures of wildness and domesticity. Just because something has been domesticated (the alien, the horses, Gordy) doesn’t mean it will not react if provoked, and this is something that Oj, with his many years of experience in horse training, understands. These animals must still be respected as animals, which is something the film crew on the Gordy’s Home TV set, and Jupe himself did not understand, and many people paid the price for that.

Veils: Obscuration, and Revelation

Outside of the mirrors and reflections, the film has many images of drapery and veiling. Mary Jo (Jupe’s old co-star) covers herself with a veil to keep from being seen by others, and a torn tablecloth hanging between the young Jupe and Gordy is probably what saved Jupe’s life, as it obscured direct eye contact between him and Gordy, and as a result, Gordy doesn’t kill him. The ufo is often obscured by clouds, making it difficult to track.

Angel, Em, and Oj come up with a complicated plan to capture the alien’s image using several cameras mounted around the ranch but when the alien shows up, the cameras all power down, and the one camera that doesn’t is obscured by the presence of a tiny creature resting on the camera’s lens: a praying mantis, an insect which is often accused of looking alien. The Praying Mantis is literally a stand-in for the ufo and is itself a predator known for its large eyes, direct gaze, and a source of both wonder and horror for both its beauty and brutality in hunting prey. In Christian symbolism, the praying mantis is a herald of good luck, and the placement of its “praying hands”, a sign of piety, which meant that angels were watching out for you. Some audience members have theorized that Jean Jacket is actually a biblically accurate Angel, but the Praying Mantis also foreshadows the creature’s final form with its giant translucent wings, that look like drapes.

The alien’s real image remains obscured until its final form which appears to be made out of veils of skin and air, a lot like a jellyfish, but really like nothing ever seen on Earth, although that does not necessarily mean it’s an extraterrestrial. A ufo is what it’s called because that’s what it looks like at first presentation but by the movie’s end it looks not unlike a cross between a Blanket Octopus and a Deepstaria Jellyfish! And it is interesting to note that this creature that flies into a rage when people look directly at it makes a huge spectacle of itself, which would naturally cause people to stare at it.

I mean I stared, so surely I would not have been able to resist looking at it, even knowing it would eat me for doing so, and maybe the point is that spectacle is impossible to resist. The image is literally all-consuming. After all, as the audience, we couldn’t resist being distracted by that little upright shoe, even in the middle of the greater spectacle of Gordy’s rampage.

The Shoe

We get a flashback to what actually occurred on the set when Jupe takes Em into a private room in his home to show her the objects he saved from the show. One of the objects in his collection is a small gray shoe, which can be seen during Gordy’s rampage in the unlikely position of standing, unaided, on its heel. The director wants us to see this shoe. It sits in the center of the action even though its presence is not important to the actual event. There is a lot of speculation about the meaning of the shoe because even during the spectacle of the massacre the shoe is distracting. Many people think it’s a symbol that for Jupe the other shoe has yet to “drop”, and that that other shoe is what Jupe has been waiting for his whole life.

I believe the shoe is a parallel to the scene at the end of the movie where the alien turns out not to be a ufo, so much as a massive alien creature whose final form is both awesome and wondrous yet terrible and terrifying to behold. That inexplicable shoe standing on its end and the final form of the alien are wonders in the midst of horror.

**Incidentally, the song heard in the movie’s trailer is Fingertips Pt. 1 by a young Stevie Wonder, who was renamed “Wonder” by his manager Berry Gordy and hailed as the blind child prodigy, who played a variety of instruments, including the piano and the harmonica.

***Okay, this post has gotten long enough. In the second part of this review let’s talk about the primary characters: Oj, Em, Jupe, and Angel.

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