Nope (Pt. 3.): Thoughts and Theories

So I have watched this a second time (on Amazon Prime streaming) and noticed a lot more stuff. Here are some of my notes from watching it, at home a third time. I also watched some reviews afterward. Normally, I don’t watch other people’s reviews or analyses, but I wanted to get an idea of what other viewers thought about the movie, and if my ideas about it were typical. It turns out that the thoughts and feelings I had were pretty typical of people who understood the movie. There was a huge contingent of people who simply didn’t understand the movie. Some of them were just people who are not especially practiced at reading movies, while some were so dazzled by the spectacle they couldn’t see a coherent point being made.

*In the biblical quote at the beginning of the movie is the line: “I will cast abominable filth upon thee.” Most people took this to be a reference to the bloody rain that the alien dumps on the Haywood Ranch at the midpoint of the movie, but I thought of this as a reference to Hollywood and the entertainment industry which regularly showers audiences with crude and dumbed-down media that is little more than intellectually inert spectacle.

*One thing that occurred to me again on another viewing was each character holds onto something that they feel is precious to them, but is also emblematic of their trauma, like Jupe and the little gray shoe. Oj holds onto the coin that Jean Jacket dropped from the sky which killed his father, and the orange hoodie that he wore to his first training job on the set of The Scorpion King 2. Em holds onto Otis Sr’s speech about Haywood Ranch which he used to give to prospective employers. She has memorized this speech down to the last detail and vocal inflection. For Antlers Holst it’s his vintage camera. I’m not sure what Angel’s token is because we only have his recent breakup with his girlfriend to associate with him.

*At every moment in the movie, we are told what the movie is about or given clues to its themes. When we first see Antlers Holst he is watching videos of closeups of different predators’ eyes. Later, we see him watching a video of a fight between two large predators. When he has dinner with the Haywoods he starts to sing the song called The Flying Purple People Eater, a one-hit wonder by Sheb Wooley, released in 1958. Otis talks with Oj about how predators cannot be tamed only bargained with. This is a callback to Gordy and a statement about Jean Jacket. Later, Oj recalls this conversation saying that one doesn’t tame a predator and you can only enter into an agreement with it. In response, Holst mentions Siegfried and Roy, this is a reference to a lion-taming duo that worked in Las Vegas. In 2003, a white tiger attacked and maimed one of the pair onstage. He survived the attack but both their careers as tamers was ended.

*I did enjoy this movie’s full use of the landscape. The images heavily reminded me of Dances with Wolves, because that’s another movie where the landscape is almost another character in the film. Peele does a superb job of making the viewer fear this wide-open panorama of mountains, blue skies, and oceans of grass, and like the characters in the movie, your eyes nervously search the fluffy white clouds for a hint that the alien is nearby. In 1975, Steven Spielberg made people afraid to go into the water, and Peele accomplishes much the same effect here, only you’ll be looking at the skies.

*Some of the imagery in the film is a callback to the mythology of ufo abductions and cattle mutilations in the Midwestern part of the US, so the link between the Western film genre and aliens has been well established. I was reminded of a documentary I watched on Hulu called Skinwalker Ranch, about a parcel of land in Utah that is infamous for paranormal events, like strange shape-shifting animals, cattle mutilations, and ufo sightings.

https://www.history.com/news/skinwalker-ranch-paranormal-ufos-mutilation

Last year, the US government declassified documents on sightings of what it now refers to as UAPs. Angel mentions the acronym but claims he doesn’t know what UAP stands for. It means Unexplained Ariel Phenomena, which I suppose is just as accurate a description of the monster in this movie as a ufo. (I watched this movie with my niece, The Potato, and she kept calling it a “you-foe” like it was all one word and I realized that I have never in my life thought of ufos as just one word!) It’s also interesting to note that Nope also stands for “Not Of Planet Earth”.

*In a blink and you’ll miss it moment a news report talks about a bunch of missing hikers in the valley, who it is assumed were eaten by the alien. If so, that would explain the falling objects at the beginning of the movie, the coin that kills Otis Sr., and the key we see embedded in Ghost’s backside. It would also explain the screaming he and Oj heard just before Otis is killed.

*Another great part of this movie are the sound effects because even if you’ve never given a single thought about such things before, you’ll notice it in this movie. After the alien has eaten (horses or people) it is preceded and trailed by the sound of its victims screaming as they are being digested, and quite frankly, that noise is probably one of the most horrifying things in the movie. If you listen hard at certain points, you can even hear individual voices. The alien itself is mostly silent except for an occasional growl (that sounds a little bit like the jets that fly over my house in the Fall). Another moment where you’ll pay close attention to sound is during Gordy’s rampage. Most of it takes place offscreen but what you can hear of it…well your imagination is gonna work a real number on you during those scenes, and you will not like it.

*There was one viewer who said the tornado effect the alien uses to slurp up prey reminded them of the tornado from The Wizard of Oz, but instead of going to some lost land, you end up somewhere much much worst.

*One of the most visually disturbing moments are the shots from within the creature’s gullet, as people and animals, alive and aware, are squeezed upwards towards its stomach. This isn’t a gory film. In fact, except for one scene, there’s almost no blood to speak of, but nevertheless, this is one of the most deeply disturbing horror movies I’ve ever watched, and that one scene apparently haunted a lot of viewers.

* I realized on my second viewing that the opening/title shots occurred at the opening of the creature’s digestive tract. There was one reviewer who said it reminded them of the old-style cameras that required the photographer to stand under linen cloths to take photos. Another reviewer said that the alien’s square mouth opening (with the green fringe) pulsed like the shutter of a camera, which is in keeping with the themes of cameras and spectacle.

*Part of the monster’s reaction to being looked at is the reaction of large predators who see eye contact as a dominance threat. Some predators (bears, spiders, birds) when they think they are being challenged by a rival will puff themselves up to look bigger and more menacing to any creature that challenges them with eye contact, which is, I think, what we’re seeing at the end of the film. The alien is indeed making a spectacle of itself to be more intimidating to Oj. I saw this and understood it, but didn’t put it together why it was doing this to Oj until I watched this a third time. A lot of people ask why it does this at the end of the movie and not at any other time. That’s because until then it has not been directly challenged by anyone but Oj, and I think it’s afraid of him, or at least wary of eating him. Every other time it chased Oj he gave ground. He averted his eyes, ran, or hid, but the last couple of times it chased him it was badly hurt, and it probably associated that pain with Oj’s orange hoodie and horse. It was chasing Oj and Lucky when it picked up the plastic horse that hurt it by getting stuck in its digestive tract. Later, Oj attracted it to him with the balloon on the end of the rainbow flag tether and the yellow spots on his hoodie, it then picked up Angel and got a mouthful of barbed wire. But now, Oj has stopped running, and is making direct eye contact, and standing his ground, so the creature probably sees Oj as another predator and puts on a threat display to make him run. Remember, to some animals, a rival stands its ground, and only food runs. Now, there were other incidents where people were staring at it and didn’t run and they got eaten, but none of them were associated with pain or harm. In fact, Jupe was probably associated with food, since he’d been feeding it for several months.

*This is also the reason I don’t think Oj dies at the end of the movie. There were some viewers who suggested that Oj standing under the Out Yonder sign meant that he was killed. First, we don’t hear anyone screaming inside the alien as it flies past Em, and second, when the creature explodes, no bodies fall out of it. I think it ignores Oj to chase the fleeing Em, and then it gets distracted by the giant balloon of Jupe, which is looking at it but also moving away. This is not a smart creature. I think it mostly runs on instinct, and throughout the movie, it mostly acts like an opportunistic predator that chases whatever is moving. An opportunistic predator changes its behavior (tactics) based on encountering prey that it wasn’t looking for. It will chase anything that runs.

*Another reason I don’t think Oj dies at the end is that the plot of this movie closely mirrors Jaws, and there’s the same fake-out death at the end of that movie when the audience believes that Hooper has been eaten by the shark. Hooper survived the shark by hiding in some rocks and reappears at the end of the movie after the shark is killed. So yes, I think Emerald is actually looking at her brother and not a ghost or hallucination. He is framed sitting on Lucky under a sign that says Out Yonder. The real-life phrase however is Over Yonder (which also means in the distance), so it’s easy to see how people got confused about it, but Oj is framed under that sign a couple of times in the movie, each framing appearing before or after he encounters the alien.

*One of my favorite moments in the movie is watching Oj’s horsemanship which is just astonishing, and I haven’t seen anyone talking about this. He is really good at training horses, and we get some idea of this when we see him after his leg is injured. He makes Lucky lay down so he can mount, a move we saw Otis Sr. practicing with Ghost at the beginning of the film. And then there’s the country western music playing as he and his trusty steed, Lucky, ride flat out across the plain as they are chased by the alien. It is a rousing classic western movie moment. (It’s also a sly reference to Oj Simpson’s white Ford Bronco slow chase in LA in 1994.)

*It took me a minute to understand the plastic horse thing. The plastic trailer from the horse is holding its aperture open (imagine if you swallowed some string and a piece of it was sticking out of your mouth) which is part of the reason it drops bloody “spoor” over the Haywood ranch. Normally when the alien drops items it can’t digest, those drops are clean and unaccompanied by other waste, but not this time because the plastic horse being lodged in it wouldn’t let its aperture close, and yes all of this sounds thoroughly disgusting and Imma stop now!

*It also took me a third viewing to figure out why the creature popped at the end because my memory of what happened was unclear. You think you remember stuff pretty clearly but…no.The alien was actually able to swallow the giant balloon of Jupe, which popped inside it. and yeah, that’s gross too…

*All-time favorite moment: Recognizing the “Akira Slide from one of my favorite SciFi movies. It says so much about Peele that he was giddily happy to add that scene and delighted that everyone recognized it!

*Agua Dulce is the name of the valley in the movie, which is actually a real place in California. The name translates as “sweet water”. Sweet Water is a very popular name in the US but it’s also a Horror movie from 2021, where a mother tracks the serial killer, who took her child, to the town of the same name, where she encounters a supernatural conspiracy.

*I also love the fact that ALL the characters of color survived to the end of the movie, and they survive by being smart and brave, and not sacrificing themselves to save a white character who did something stupid. They act the way we imagine we would in such circumstances. A running joke in the Black community is if Horror movies starred an all-Black cast, the movies would only be about thirty minutes long. There’s the scene where Angel thinks to wrap himself in barbed wire to make himself inedible when the alien comes after him, and the scene where Oj has a choice to get out of his truck and make a run for the house or stay in his truck. He decides to sleep in the truck! We didn’t have to waste precious energy yelling at him to stay in the truck.

*One of the reviewers I saw came up with a pretty intricate theory on the movie’s themes that I hadn’t heard from anyone else. He thought that the movie was about racism and white supremacy. The alien is white and acts like a plantation overseer, watching over its territory from on high, and swooping down to terrorize these PoC. But when the people of color (Angle, Em, Oj) banded together they were able to defeat the monster.

But these are not hard and fast things to believe. Just some stuff I was thinking while watching the movie. Peele himself says that the movie covers a lot of ground so any themes that people pick up on are probably correct (and probably say more about the viewer than the film).

Okay, now I’m done. I had to re-write this since the last time because after watching the movie a third time I picked up on a lot more stuff because I can pause things to write stuff down.

Next week: time for other stuff.

Nope (Pt.2): The Characters

The reason I rushed to get that last post published so quickly was that I had just watched the film, and wanted to get it all down while the images were still fresh. I’m probably going to mention things in this post that I forgot to mention in the last one or not mention some stuff I simply forgot. I’m still in something of a rush to write this all down before I forget my impressions of these characters, (I have seen the movie a second time since the first post). I didn’t walk into the movie thinking about things to look for. I walked into it remembering an interview I saw with Peele where he mentioned that his inspiration for this movie was Jaws.

There Are Going to Be Spoilers!!! There Are Going to Be Spoilers!!

To make a movie this ambitious (it is more than 2 hours long) and in an effort to save time, Peele has engaged in a certain amount of film shorthand, namely archetypal characters. Archetypes are typical examples of a certain type of person often seen in movies. Archetypes are characters that the audience is meant to immediately recognize (mostly on a subconscious level), understand who they are, what their purpose is, and sometimes a broad concept of what actions they’re going to commit. There’s nothing wrong with archetypes (unless they’re badly used or written), most films use them, and they’re meant to save storytelling time. Peele has used at least three different archetypes here, and they mostly seem to map very well to the archetypes from the movie Jaws, which is on Peele’s recommended watchlist as inspiration for this film.

The Archetypes

The Cowboy – Oj

Drawing on his depth of knowledge of genre films Peele has engaged the archetype of The Cowboy in the form of OJ. While the definition of the cowboy is a guy who rides a horse to herd cattle, the image of the cowboy in the US is anyone who exhibits the behavior and trappings of a cowboy, which Oj does. He’s heroic, strong, silent, and highly principled, and has mastered the understanding, training, and use of horses. But what he most reminds me of with his jeans and hoodie are the urban Black horseriders called the Compton Cowboys which tickles me to no end!

When it comes to comparisons to Jaws, Oj is the one most like Sheriff Brody. He is the person trying the hardest to hold things down, hold onto his father’s legacy, and he is dedicated to his job and devoted to his family. Like Brody, he has trouble making his voice heard even when he is right, and is the kind of man willing to make the sacrifice play to defend what he loves.

The Prodigal – Emerald Haywood

Em is the classic Prodigal Son archetype. The Prodigal in movies (this definition is outside the literary version) is often a younger brother who has left home because they couldn’t reconcile themselves with the wishes of their father and seek a better life for themselves. Em comes back home from Hollywood after her estrangement from her father, and reconciling her issues with her dad (and brother) achieves her final goal. There is no Prodigal character in the original Jaws so the addition of Emerald is wholly unique. Another wholly unique feature is that this Prodigal is a Black woman who, while working in tandem with her brother, turns out to be the hero of the movie and a Classic Final Girl.

The Wild Card – Jupe

Another archetypal character is the wild card. Jupe isn’t a wild card because he’s unpredictable to us. Like Quint in Jaws, he is a wild card to the other characters who don’t know enough about him to figure out what his goal is. The wild card character has their own agenda and their own motivations. As long as they can accomplish their goal they will work with anyone, on any side, they will switch sides, betray others, or form alliances based entirely on what they can get out of the arrangement. They are often arrogant and opportunistic. This perfectly describes both Ricky (Jupe) Park and Quint. I consider Jupe a wild card because his goals are not consistent with the goals of the other characters, although, on the surface, they may seem to be and he is willing to seem as if he is their ally. But his primary goal is to exploit the UFO and the circumstances for his own monetary gain and his motivation is based on the mistaken belief that he can.

The Common Man/Man in the Chair – Angel

The closest Jaws character to Angel is probably Hooper, who is there to study the shark, handles all the tech and equipment, and has no stake in the affair other than being friends with the protagonist. I talked before about how every genre story needs to have one character who can speak for or represent the members of the audience. This character’s job is to voice the audience’s concerns or do the things that audience members wish they could do like having a grand adventure, being friends with the primary characters, or just surviving the event. These characters are unlikely to be killed, because they have no real stake in the proceedings, so they are more like witnesses. Angel, like Hooper, isn’t someone who really furthers the plot in a big way, but he is the character that is most like us, finding himself in an incredible situation that he must now deal with in a way we hope we would.

The Characters

Ricky (Jupe) Park

Jupe is one of the deepest characters in the story and the one about whom we get the most in-depth backstory. Like the Mayor from Jaws, he is also the closest thing we get to a villain, or antagonist, as it is the choices he makes that set the plot in motion. One thing viewers may not have gotten is that the alien/ufo has taken up residence in the valley where the Haywood Ranch exists because Jupe has been feeding it the horses he’s been buying from Oj. Oj has been selling him horses as a way to pay for the Ranch’s upkeep, with the full expectation that he can buy them back. When Oj tries to discuss buying back his horses, Jupe distracts him with his famous backstory. Even though we can see the pain in his eyes and that he has not, in fact, moved on from the trauma, he tells Em the story anyway.

That scene is also an echo of Quint from Jaws in the scene where he is telling Em his story of what happened on the set of Gordy’s rampage and is a callback to Quint’s recitation of his own trauma aboard the USS Indianapolis, and something which informs his motivations for hunting the shark. You have these two characters who have not moved beyond their trauma, which has led to the delusional belief that they can control/capture these wild animals, which subsequently, gets them killed. Jupe’s scene doesn’t have the same level of gravity as Quint’s scene because it happens fairly early in the film before we’ve really spent much time with the character, but it serves the same purpose as a “pivotal moment” that each character has in their backstory. It is the moment that made them who they are in this one.

Jupe has the idea that because he survived Gordy’s rampage on the set as a child, and because Gordy, who was trained to give him a fist bump, was in the process of doing so before he was killed, that he has some special connection with animals. He has entered into a kind of devil’s bargain with the alien, where he feeds the creature horses every weekend, and as a result, the alien has taken up residence near his theme park, and specifically, near the Haywood ranch, where it steals the occasional horse and dumps its “spoor” on their land. Jupe’s mistaken belief that he has mastered this alien creature is one of the larger themes of the movie.

Jupe has not dealt properly with the trauma of what happened to him as a child. He continues to dwell in the headspace of that event, and coupled with his need to hold onto the fame of his youth, this makes for the disastrous outcome we see in the movie, where he presses his luck, and for his trouble, he and his audience get eaten.

If you look closely, you’ll see that each character holds onto some object from their past that is representative of their personal trauma. For Jupe its the little gray shoe which he keeps on display in his memorial room.

Emerald Haywood (Em)

The scene that most completely encapsulates the type of person Emerald Haywood is is the scene in the tech store where she’s laying out her plan to capture photos of the ufo to her brother, and she briefly interrupts her spiel to compliment some lady about her clothes. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but when I saw it I burst out laughing because that’s just so HER. She does things like that where she just randomly compliments people. Em is a person who is constantly giving and looking for approval, not just because it helps her accomplish her goal of being a Hollywood star, but because she seemed to always be trying to win her father’s approval.

Em’s “pivotal” backstory is when she was about nine years old her father promised to teach her to train her first horse, which she named Jean Jacket, but she never got the chance because her father chose Oj in her stead. She says after that their father never seemed to see her. He only had eyes for the heir to his legacy, Oj. Subsequently, she has spent the rest of her life trying to be seen, trying to gain somebody’s, anybody’s, attention. That’s what all the hustling and charming, self-referential patter is all about. She left home to go to Hollywood for fame and fortune and spends her time trying to convince other people she is special, not understanding that she was always looking in the wrong place because her brother already knew she was special (for being able to do the thing he could not do which was break free of his father’s shadow) and he has always been able to see her.

The one thing that Em holds close to her that exemplifies her trauma is her father’s speech which he used to introduce himself to his clients. In her attempt to be seen by her father she has memorized every word and inflection (even his stammer) of that speech.

There are a number of callbacks in the film, like the scene where she watches her brother being trained on her horse, Jean Jacket, and he looks up at her and points to his eyes, and then to her. This is recalled at the end of the movie when he does it again and she returns the gesture. One of the primary themes of this movie is seeing and being seen. Capturing the alien’s photogragh is her Jean Jacket moment. He is giving her this chance to put her shit down and show the world what he always knew she was capable of.

And for that, we anime fans are gifted the extreme pleasure of seeing her do The Akira Slide!!!

Otis Haywood Jr. (Oj)

Each of the primary characters has a pivotal story in their background that informs their character, motivation, and actions at the end of the movie. Oj’s pivotal story is that his father chose him to be his successor rather than Emerald who seemed to want it more. When they were kids, she was set to train a horse she named Jean Jacket and his father changed his mind and chose him for the training instead, which led to Oj being his legal heir. Subsequently, he got all the training (and hence his father’s attention) with Em’s horse. The first job he went to with his father was on the set of The Mummy spinoff movie, The Scorpion King 2, (which is where the orange hoodie comes from) but he was deprived of his chance to show his skills when the creators decided they didn’t need horses and would use camels instead, and has spent the years since then as his father’s assistant, never getting the chance to build the confidence that comes from working on his own.

The representative object that Oj holds close to him is the orange hoodie with the Scorpion King logo. It’s emblematic of the pivotal childhood event where he never got a chance to use his newly trained skills on his first job, and was relegated to being nothing more than his father’s assistant.

One of the reasons Oj is so reticent/standoffish on the set at the beginning of the film is that is actually his first job alone, after his father’s death. Before that, his father did all the talking and handling on the set including that little speech memorized by Em. Oj didn’t have to try to hold everything down or talk to anyone on set because Dad had everything under control. (Up until one’s parents are gone you always think you’re ready for whatever, and then when they’re gone, you have to actually find out if you are.) The orange hoodie represents him finally picking up the reins from his father, and the corralling of the alien (and the protection of his family and legacy by doing so) is really his first job.

Oj, because of his understanding and connection with animals, is the first to recognize not just that the ufo is actually a territorial predator that must be respected as the animal it is, but the significance of the actions he and Em are about to perform. It’s Em’s first training job too, only she will be corralling an alien predator. It is Oj who names the alien Jean Jacket as a tribute to that moment.

While we’re here, let’s talk about how Oj survives multiple attempts by the alien to consume him, something that Jupe doesn’t. Oj is a very different character from Jupe and his sister. He doesn’t seek fame or attention, and the special connection with animals that Jupe only thought he had, and Em wishes she had, is something that Oj actually possesses. Due to his training with animals, he is the first to discern what they are dealing with, and unlike Jupe, he never forgets that an animal is an animal, and no matter how much training that animal has, it has a mind of its own, and it can still be triggered into violence. Em may be jealous of his skills but she is willing to recognize his expertise, listen to him when he tells her about the alien, and follow his directions in dealing with it.

As for Oj’s demeanor, some of the primary markers of autism are avoiding eye contact with others, anxiety in social situations, finding it hard to make friends or being a loner, noticing small details that others don’t, and difficulty discussing feelings. Oj displays many of these traits which is why some audiences like to read him as being autistic, an idea I support because I happen to be autistic. The first time we see Oj at work he is almost painfully withdrawn. He refuses to make eye contact, looks nervous/disinterested about being in the presence of so many strangers, and shows a reluctance to speak or draw any attention to himself. When he feels pinched he calls for Em to do what she does, and we feel almost as uncomfortable as he seems to be. (I winced through that entire scene, and it’s my least favorite one, not because it’s badly written, but because it’s such a great depiction of social anxiety/being the center of attention.)

Em and OjRelationship

I really enjoyed this movie because yeah, I’m attracted to spectacle, and it has plenty of it, but it also has great characters and great relationships. Otis Jr and Emerald really resonated with me because their relationship isn’t all that different from me and my oldest little brother, and the personality dynamics aren’t too far off either, except I’m the one who left home and came back, and he’s the more garrulous one. I’m one of those people who say about twenty words a year, and only under duress!) I’m an artist and dreamer, he’s a talker and fixer-of-things who thinks his big sister is an absent-minded nerd who needs to be carefully looked after. This is not unlike how Oj thinks of his little sister as a dreamer who is smart, but flighty. He’s willing to listen to her ideas because he respects her intelligence, and because of the force of her personality, which is how I often have to convince my know-it-all little brother to do what I want.

If you watch the movie carefully you realize that the only person Oj physically engages with is his sister. It’s not that he doesn’t interact with other people but recall the scene where he and Em are celebrating a victory, and slapping hands. Oj acts that way with no one else in the movie. He is almost always monosyllabic and averts his eyes from everyone else, even Angel, who he only warms up to slowly. Palmer and Kaluuya have such great chemistry that you actually believe they’re brother and sister. They both have issues surrounding their father but don’t let that get in the way of their own relationship or ability to work together. Em listens to her brother and trusts his expertise, especially when it comes to what he’s been trained to do. Oj listens to what his sister has to say, and goes along with her plan, recognizing her drive and intelligence.

Angel Torres

I like to refer to Angel as the Common Man, or Everyman because, like Hooper from Jaws, he is an outsider, and of all the characters he seems most relatable to the average person. Like us, he doesn’t live, work, or have loved ones in danger at the Ranch, nor does he have any real stake in the proceedings other than being friends with Em and Oj. His life will not be greatly upheaved, outside of his interior sense of self, after this is all over. He is not there to save the Haywwod’s ranch or make any money off the alien.

Angel gets a tiny bit of backstory and I like him for that. Angel operates like the sibling’s “man in the chair”. He helps set up their equipment and then spies on their attempt to capture images of the ufo. He tells the siblings that he just broke up with his girlfriend and is searching for something greater than himself, and even though he doesn’t say it, he’s also looking for friends, and somewhere to be other than by himself. He meets Em and Oj at the tech store where he works and is immediately intrigued by them. Seeing their presence in his store as a call to adventure, he invites himself into their lives, and them into his, offering to let them stay at his home after an incident that causes them to flee their own (and offering them his clothes). Angel is that childlike part of us that seeks thrills and adventure (and new friends) with no consideration of the actual danger.

I’m a sucker for the Found Family trope, so Angel immediately endeared himself to me by inserting himself, totally uninvited, into an event that has nothing to do with him, and then holding his own, as if he totally belonged there. He is a quick and clever thinker and one of the few people actively pursued by the alien that saves himself by simply making himself taste bad – rolling himself in barbed wire! (He makes himself unattractive to the camera!) Although Angel spends most of the movie frightened out of his skin, he does make reasonably intelligent decisions, the kind we’d like to think we would make in such a situation. He’s out of his depth and he knows it, but he never backs down, or runs out on them, and manages to keep his sense of humor. His loyalty to Em and Oj is baffling to some people, but having been an introvert on the receiving end of being unexpectedly adopted by an extrovert, I get it.

One thing tied to my last post is about the scene where the mantis obscures the view of one of Angel’s cameras, and how in Christian mythology a praying mantis in the home is a sign that angels are watching over you. Some audience members pointed out that there actually is an “Angel” watching over the house during that scene.

*Okay, now this one is also getting a bit too long, and I can see that this is going to require a part 3 because I haven’t really talked about the monster, its significance, its depiction, what it represents, and one other character people always forget about when talking about a film, the landscape!

**Yeah, I did go back and see the movie a second time. I had not planned to do so, but when the opportunity presented itself for my sister to pay for it I jumped at the chance. There is a certain amount of glee involved in watching a Horror movie, with your easily frightened and already nervous sibling, that you have already seen and lording it over them just a little bit. That’s just one of several perks of being a sibling!

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.