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Jordan Peele’s Nope, explained

Unpacking the spectacle at the heart of the movie’s mysteries.

A man in a cowboy hat gestures toward the sky.
Steven Yeun in Nope.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s gutsy to start a movie with a verse from Nahum, which is surely one of the Bible’s least-quoted books. But Jordan Peele likes a challenge.

So the text that opens Nope, the director’s follow-up to Us and Get Out, is Nahum 3:6: I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle. Buckle up!

Nope is a bloody, creepy UFO movie, unexpectedly gross in spots, with several different ideas knocking around in its head. Since the relatively straightforward Get Out, Peele’s work has moved away from simple explanation and toward discomfiting vibes, and that’s to its credit.

But that means audiences have to lean in and work harder, and have to be okay with mystery. That helps explain why some viewers may come away dissatisfied. TV and movies over the past several decades have coaxed us to expect explanations and puzzle boxes in our entertainment, and to be annoyed when creators refuse to reveal the trick at the end of the show. But Peele is happy to leave some things to our imaginations.

Which includes his gutsy epigraph. Nahum is one of the “minor” prophets of the Bible (which basically means the book he wrote is short), nestled in between Jonah — the guy who was swallowed up by a giant fish — and Zephaniah, who like Nahum mainly foretold destruction. The target of all three was Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which did indeed fall not long after the prophecies, taking the empire down with it. Just before this verse, Nahum describes Nineveh as a lion’s den, the “city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims,” a place with “galloping horses and jolting chariots,” full of bodies of the dead. Basically, Nineveh arrogantly chews people up and spits them out. So, Nahum says, God will do the same to Nineveh.

A man stands with a horse, a woman in front of him, and a green screen behind them.
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer in Nope.
Universal Pictures

Nope is not set in Nineveh, exactly; it’s set in Hollywood. The action takes place in Agua Dulce, about a 40-mile drive north of Hollywood. There, siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, named for their great-great-great grandfather Alistair E. Haywood, who rode the horse in the first moving picture ever made. They train horses for movies. But following the untimely death of their father Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), killed in a freak accident in which debris rained down from the sky, they’re running into hard times. Plus, the advent of CGI means the movies just don’t require real horses on set the way they used to.

Alistair Haywood’s character is Peele’s invention, though the film in which he rode a horse, made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, is real. Actually, there were multiple films; the one that Peele intertwines Nope with involves a horse named Annie G. ridden by an unidentified but definitely Black jockey. History remembers the horse but has lost track of the jockey’s identity, which is sort of Nope’s point. In one scene, Emerald proudly announces on a movie set that “since the moment pictures could move, we got skin in the game.” But nobody remembers Haywood unless she reminds them.

In any case, the Haywood ranch is just up the road from Jupiter’s Claim, and OJ’s been selling horses to owner Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) to keep the ranch afloat. Jupiter’s Claim is a goofy cartoonish amusement park lightly modeled on a fun-loving town from some old Western — and those in turn, let’s remember, were very lightly modeled on the actual West. Jupe, a former child star, picked up his nickname from his role as “Jupiter” on Kid Sheriff, a movie he starred in following a rather sudden end to a short-lived sitcom, Gordy’s Home. He now sustains a living chasing that fame any way he can: selling access to memorabilia, attracting tourists to Jupiter’s Claim, starring in reality shows with his family, and some … weirder pursuits.

But that’s in keeping with Agua Dulce, because there’s been a lot of weird stuff going on in the six months since Otis died. Electricity randomly browns out and audio slows down at nighttime, and the laws of physics occasionally behave strangely. And there’s something in the sky.

Yes, this is a UFO movie, or a “UAP” movie, since — as local electronics wiz and alien aficionado Angel (Brandon Perea) tells Emerald — the government switched to calling them Unidentified Aerial Phenomena after they “declassified all that alien shit years ago.” Call them what you want: Flying saucers in movies are often metaphors for invasion by unknown forces, or for paranoia that the government is keeping secrets from its people.

Peele knows all this, but with Nope, he isn’t doing pure homage. Instead, he scatters breadcrumbs along the way to his main point. This is partly a film about how frequently Black film history has been pushed out of memory. In the ranch house, you can glimpse posters for the films Duel at Diablo and Buck and the Preacher, the first Westerns that Sidney Poitier starred in and directed, respectively, in 1966 and 1972. Buck and the Preacher, in particular, was groundbreaking for casting Black actors as main characters. Coupled with the Haywood connection — and the fact that it’s still hard, 50 years later, to get a movie made starring Black actors that isn’t about trauma in some wayNope points to Hollywood’s history of shoving inconvenient histories aside.

Image reads “spoilers below,” with a triangular sign bearing an exclamation point.
You’ve been warned!

But that’s not all that’s going on here. Nope is centrally about how our experiences of reality have been almost entirely colonized by screens and cameras and entertainment’s portrayals of what it calls reality, to the point that we can barely conceive of experiencing reality directly, with honesty and without any kind of manipulation. It’s as if it sprung from the mind of any number of theorists, like Guy Debord, the philosopher who in 1967 wrote a book called Society of the Spectacle. “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail,” Debord wrote, “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

In his treatise, Debord goes on to posit that “the spectacle” — which he describes as sort of an all-consuming blanket of unreality that attracts our gaze and replaces our reality — more or less has colonized modern life. Our social life is not about living, but having.

And that’s all over Nope, from start to finish. Jupe’s offices are lined with posters commemorating TV and film history, from his earliest work all the way to an upcoming family reality show, all designed to keep eyes on him. He’s been courting the flying saucer, whatever it is, since its appearance six months ago, using Haywood’s horses to do so. And while he harbors a painfully traumatic memory of a chimp attack on the set of the short-lived Gordy’s Home, he can’t access it directly when explaining to Emerald and OJ; he recounts a Saturday Night Live sketch about it instead.

Jupe’s development of a “family show” at Jupiter’s Claim is just another harnessing of spectacle — in this case, the flying saucer — to get paying customers to his amusement park. He calls the unknowable creatures he believes are on board the saucer “The Viewers.” They are watching us, he thinks, unable to think of himself outside that paradigm. To be alive is to be watched, he believes. It’s when people stop watching you that you cease to exist.

Watching and being watched is everywhere in Nope. When OJ and Emerald first come to believe there’s a saucer in the sky, they head straight for the electronics store to get surveillance cameras, which Angel installs on their property. Angel, besotted with aliens because of TV (“Ancient Aliens, History Channel — watch that shit,” he tells them), rigs up a remote connection so he can watch at night from the electronics store. It’s like TV, till it’s real. The first night, as OJ dodges the saucer, a nearby coworker in the store, munching chips and hanging out, even breathlessly asks, “What happened to OJ?” As if he’s a character on a show, and not a real guy whose life is in danger.

An object that looks like a flying saucer!
Uh oh.
Universal Pictures

OJ isn’t much for technology; unlike smartphone-toting Emerald, he still uses a flip phone, a clear sign that he doesn’t want to participate in this spectacle culture. When it comes for him, he knows not to look. He opts out. (Nope.)

But you can’t really opt out of a spectacle culture — it’s around you, and whether or not you want to participate, it tends to suck you in anyhow. When OJ and Emerald realize there’s some kind of a flying saucer in the sky, their first impulse is to film it, to own a representation of it. That’s not without reason, since they’ve grown up knowing that their family’s place in Hollywood history was essentially stolen from them by those more interested in the horse’s name than in Haywood’s. But their urge to get “the impossible shot” is greater than their urge to run away from the danger itself.

Yet it might help to explain why OJ is the first to realize that the saucer isn’t a saucer at all, at least not like the kind they’re used to seeing in the movies. It wasn’t crazy to assume the object in the sky was a ship carrying aliens. Many of the things we believe about the world around us and about our history come from representations of them on screens, not reality. (Debord again.) Our ideas of what war is like, what cities are like, what love is like, how the West was “won” — they all come through movies. They have since the pictures started moving, as Emerald puts it.

And as time has gone on, we’ve grown more hungry for bigger, better representations. The mirror ball that spooks the horse on set is a VFX ball, a key tool for digital video artists in making today’s spectacle-driven CGI blockbusters.

Which is why it matters what we see. But OJ gets it: the saucer is alive, and it isn’t trying to help them or study them or warn them. It just wants to eat them. It’s less saucer than spectacle to gawk at. And it has a screen-shaped rectangle at its heart which, as we see at the start of the movie, contains Muybridge’s film of Haywood riding the horse. But it’s insatiable. It wants blood. The spectacle consumes all.

There are other deliciously unexplained breadcrumbs scattered throughout Nope, which could be clues or references or just delightful red herrings. There’s a tiny reference to Poltergeist when the alien arrives. There’s also a tennis shoe that balances on its heel, for no apparent reason, during Gordy’s on-set rampage; it later shows up in Jupe’s back room of memorabilia. The name of the TMZ reporter who shows up on a motorcycle — with a mirrored helmet, no less — is listed in the film’s credits as “Ryder Muybridge,” which is obviously a reference to the man who shot the film starring Alistair Haywood and who has gone down in history with all the credit. (Emerald is desperate that he not steal their impossible shot.)

In the end, of course, there’s a great irony to Nope, and one of which Peele is undoubtedly aware; he ends the film, after all, with the “impossible shot” being captured as a still by an old-fashioned film camera. (Which is not a guarantee that they’ll be believed — you can fake a photo, right?) Nope is a big, very loud, very effects-driven spectacle. It’s a movie with a thousand references to the past. It’s also a riotously entertaining thrill ride that owes portions of its plot to some of Hollywood’s most successful summer blockbusters, Jaws and Independence Day. It’s part of the culture; it can’t stand outside of it.

But it functions at least a little bit as a warning, or maybe a prophecy, or a call for a reboot, or a reminder to care about what, or who, gets our attention. When midway through the film, the saucer rains guts and blood down on the ranch house, you have to think of Nahum’s words: “I will cast abominable filth upon you.”

A culture built on spectacle can only get more spectacular, coaxing us to always look at it, to never tear ourselves away, to gorge ourselves on it. The impossible trick is to just say nope.

Nope is playing in theaters beginning July 21.

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