Movies

What’s the Meaning of Jordan Peele’s Nope?

Wrong question.

Three people standing on a dry grassland, with concerned looks on their faces.
Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Brandon Perea in Nope. Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele’s third movie, Nope, opens with an image as disturbing as it is inexplicable. Over the opening logos, we hear the faint crackle of sitcom dialogue, canned laughter mixed with static, as if coming in over a poorly tuned radio. What we see next matches what we’ve we heard: a generic living room at the edge of a stage, lit so brightly it almost sears our eyeballs. (Think Family Ties meets the last scene in 2001.) But something’s not right. Instead of actors exchanging scripted jibes, the only living occupant of the shot is a chimpanzee sitting in in the middle of the floor, a conical birthday hat perched at an angle atop his head. It takes a beat to realize that the chimpanzee’s mouth and hands are covered in blood.

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Nope eventually explains what’s referred to as “the Gordy’s Home Incident,” when the trained chimpanzee at the center of a hit ’90s sitcom went berserk and attacked several of his human co-stars. But we never quite learn the whole story, and what we do learn doesn’t entirely make sense. When he’s asked what happened that day, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), then the child star of Gordy’s Home, defers to secondary sources, notably a Saturday Night Live pastiche in which Ricky was embodied by Scott Wolf and Gordy was played by Chris Kattan. Ricky sounds more like an SNL fanboy than a firsthand witness to a violent trauma as he recaps the sketch—“I mean,” he says breathlessly, “it’s Kattan”—but scattered flashbacks throughout the film take us through the incident from Ricky’s point of view, shivering under a prop table as he watches his fellow actors get mauled. Even at its most explicit, the movie’s depiction remains discreet, if not exactly comforting. From under that table, we can’t see what’s happening as Gordy turns his attention to the prone body of Ricky’s child costar Mary Jo; only her feet are visible as they poke out from the other side of the fake living room’s sofa. (When the chimpanzee bends over her face and we hear the sound of teeth gnawing flesh, what we imagine is worse than anything we could have seen.) Ricky averts his gaze, and that’s when his eyes, and ours, fall on something that he simply can’t explain: one of Mary Jo’s shoes, its glittery surface marred with a single drop of blood, perfectly, impossibly upright amid the chaos, balanced on its toe.

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Given that the plot of Nope also involves extraterrestrials, I kept thinking that the past and present stories would link up somehow, that the UFO hiding in the clouds above the horse ranch owned by Otis “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) would somehow be responsible for that blood-specked shoe’s temporary immunity from the laws of gravity. But the one never explains the other—and the more I think about Nope, the more that omission feels pointed, even central to understanding what the movie is saying, and what it chooses not to.

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With Get Out, Peele instantly established himself as an incisive parabolist, particularly on the subject of systemic racism in America, with a gift for crafting allegories that enlighten their subjects without simplifying them, and building them around concepts, like Get Out’s sunken place and the tethered of Us, powerful enough to take on a life of their own. Nope’s subject is both grander and more elusive, announced plainly in an epigraph from the book of Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” Where Hollywood is concerned, “spectacle” tends to be an unalloyed good, and Nope has plenty of it, including an elaborate climax in which the Haywoods do battle against an angry alien monster. But the spectacle in the movie’s Biblical citation doesn’t sound like much fun, a pledge from an angry God to make a public example of the sinful city of Nineveh. And as Gordy’s abrupt shift from adorable trained primate to rampaging beast makes clear, the transition from one form of spectacle to the other can be both swift and merciless.

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The Haywoods’ history is intimately entwined with Hollywood’s: they make a living training horses for use on movie sets, and, at least according to family lore, one of their ancestors has a passing claim to being the first movie star; he’s  the Black jockey atop a galloping horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s proto-cinematic series of rapid-fire photographs. As Emerald points out during an energetic spiel on the set of a commercial, the story of Muybridge’s pioneering experiment rarely includes any mention of the jockey, and in fact, his real identity has never been discovered; we know the name of the horse he rode, but not his. Although Muybridge’s photographs resemble a series of frames from a celluloid print, at the time he took them, there was no means of projecting them in sequence to produce the illusion of continuous movement. It was up to the viewer to fill in the spaces between them, much as Nope uses fictional invention to fill the gaps—or, more pointedly, the erasures—in cinema history. It’s not an accident that Emerald gives her speech about Eadweard Muybridge on the set in front of a green screen (or perhaps even that her name is a kind of green). Adding the background is left to us.

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Muybridge is something of a totem for Nope; a poster for an exhibition of his works hangs in a bedroom in the family home where Emerald takes shelter during an alien attack, and the TMZ-like cameraman who shows up at an inopportune moment during the movie’s climax, his face hidden by a mirrored motorcycle helmet, is identified in the credits as “Ryder Muybridge.” The fact that the alien’s presence disables all nearby electronics means that if the Haywoods want to realize their dream of photographing it—getting the “Oprah shot” that will prove the existence of extraterrestrials and propel them to fame and fortune—they are going to have to rely on analog technology to do it: first a hand-cranked film camera wielded by Michael Wincott’s eccentric cinematographer, and eventually, an impromptu single-frame rig in a theme-park wishing well. Even as the movie ramps up its seamless CGI, the characters are effectively moving backward through time, turning to ever-more primitive methods to make their own history.

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Because of its movie-industry setting, Nope has drawn comparisons to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but where Quentin Tarantino’s movie is steeped in (somewhat ambivalent) nostalgia, Peele’s is not especially concerned with the past—somewhat surprisingly, given that it opens with a miniature lecture on movie history. Apart from the poster for Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher that hangs in the Haywoods’ living room, there’s no mention of their generations spent working in the Hollywood trenches. Besides, as the crew hoodie OJ dons for the climactic showdown reminds us, it’s 2022—the past isn’t Westerns and sex farces now; it’s the unloved Mummy spinoff The Scorpion King.

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Ricky Park has built his adult life on a version of his past, an ersatz Western town in the same valley as the Haywoods’ horse ranch, called Jupiter’s Claim and named for his character in a movie from his child-acting days. Based on the theme park’s general dinginess and the sparse attendance at Ricky’s much-hyped Star Lasso Experience (a title that takes on added resonance once its real nature is revealed), people don’t care much about the history of either his acting career or the Wild West. But they are fascinated by his childhood trauma; one couple paid $50,000 to spend the night in the secret room adjoining his office filled with Gordy’s Home memorabilia—including, in a glass case, that bloody shoe.

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Nope never tells us what happened to Ricky Park after the Gordy’s Home incident (although we do, unfortunately, find out what happened to Gordy)—it’s yet another place where the movie makes us fill in the blanks. But it seems likely that he was abandoned by the industry that traumatized him for life, forgotten like Muybridge’s jockey, or used up and put out to pasture like one of the Haywoods’ horses. Hollywood chews people up and spits them out, an expression that becomes even more pertinent once we learn what the would-be flying saucer is really up to. Ricky, who’s still defining himself on the entertainment industry’s terms—a poster in his office hints that he and his family are also the subject of a reality TV show—assumes that the aliens, whom he dubs “the viewers,” want from him what everyone has always wanted: to watch. But the truth turns out to be much simpler, and more brutal. The ship isn’t a ship at all but a living entity (it looks like a giant flying sand dollar), and it has only one exceedingly simple goal: to eat us.

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Perhaps because he’s a person more comfortable around horses than he is people, OJ is the first to grasp the elemental truth that the ship is essentially an animal, and it has an animal’s drive to protect its own territory—which, thanks to Ricky’s ill-advised manipulations, it has decided is the valley the Haywoods’ ranch shares with Jupiter’s Claim. (That valley, incidentally, is in the California town of Agua Dulce, which served as a location for Blazing Saddles and Steven Spielberg’s Duel.) Emerald and OJ’s business has been faltering since the death of their father, who is killed early on by what we eventually figure out is a rain of inorganic debris expelled from the alien’s gullet, so they’ve been selling horses to Ricky to make ends meet, purportedly for use in his Wild West pageants. But he’s actually been feeding them to the alien, coaxing it to stick around so he can eventually charge people to see it. His plan goes awry when Lucky, the horse we first see on the set where Emerald gives her Muybridge talk, refuses to leave his cage and trot off to be eaten. So the alien takes Ricky and his audience instead, sucking up them up into its bowels—where, in a brief but horrifying shot, we realize that they have plenty of time to soak in the knowledge that they’re about to be digested.

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OJ initially tries to tame the alien, to break it as if it’s an unruly stallion (he even nicknames it Jean Jacket, after one of the family’s old horses). In the movie’s schema, where the alien, as Peele is happy to explain, represents spectacle itself, this is the equivalent of trying to make the system work for you. When Emerald asks Wincott’s cameraman to help them capture the alien on film despite the fact that they have no money to pay him, he says yes because it’s his “one for me”—part of the bargain Hollywood veterans strike where they take money gigs to finance their own personal work. But the cameraman gets eaten, and OJ realizes that’s not going to work. In a word: nope.

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Peele has crammed Nope with enough potent symbols to make numerous interpretations possible: It’s about our addiction to spectacle, about the entertainment industry’s historical erasure of people of color; it’s about what happens when we replace history with myth, and myth with the empty calories of summer blockbusters. And it is about those things, somewhat. It’s also not defined by them. The critics who’ve emerged dissatisfied that the movie doesn’t reserve into a tidy allegory like Get Out or Us might be missing the point. Peele is eminently aware of his position as one of the most powerful Black filmmakers in the industry, and he’s used that power conscientiously—Nope launched Universal’s Below-the-Line trainee program, which helps support people from underrepresented groups entering the movie industry. But he’s also bristled against having his work seen primarily through the lens of social commentary. As he said to GQ, “I don’t understand why people can’t just let me make a movie.”

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Nope tries to have it both ways, to wield big symbols but reserve a space beyond them where the filmmaking is more intuitive and less didactic. The film’s subject has prompted comparisons to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, but Peele made something more like Signifiers; some of Nope’s most blatant symbols are purposefully left untethered, not fixed to a single meaning. And some, like the shoe, don’t seem to mean anything at all, except that the universe is fundamentally mysterious and beyond our comprehension. (As a filmmaker on the wiftier side of agnosticism, Shyamalan makes movies that appeal to a higher order, but for Peele, all that’s up there is a hungry animal.) Sometimes a shoe is just a shoe.

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In one of Nope’s last shots, OJ appears in a cloud of smoke outside the entrance to Jupiter’s Claim. He’s invisible at first, but his form slowly becomes clear, framed by the ranch’s wooden gate so that he looks like a developing Polaroid. It’s the same kind of film his sister has just used to capture their fabled “Oprah shot,” the image that might mean they’re set for life. But the sign above OJ’s head that once directed the park’s now-digested visitors to the exit simply reads “Out Yonder.” Whatever’s next for OJ and Emerald is outside the realm of the park’s fake history, and beyond the ability of at least this kind of movie to depict. Jordan Peele has proudly noted in interviews that a movie like Nope—an original, big-budget spectacle with a Black writer–director and Black leads—could not have been made five years ago. Not even he knows where we’ll be five years from now.

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