By Robert Koehler
Whatever else you may have heard about Nope, otherwise known as “Not of Planet Earth,” know this: Jordan Peele’s third and most radical movie is his subversive inquiry into Hollywood. On the surface, such a stance is old news. At least as early as Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust, artists who have experienced the Hollywood moviemaking business firsthand have exacted some form of literary or cinematic revenge at the beast that has fed them. The irony is that it can sometimes seem that it’s some of the most successful in the Hollywood galaxy who engage in this project, whether it be Vincente Minnelli with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Paul Mazursky with Alex in Wonderland (1970), or Robert Altman with The Player (1992).
And Peele is nothing if not successful. His emergence with Get Out (2017), with its nightmarish depiction of white privilege run amok, followed by Us (2019), an ingeniously clever, Rod Serling–influenced tale blending racial horrors and paranoid science fiction, were cultural landmarks, announcing not only a Black filmmaker of far-reaching imagination and brilliance but also one able to dislocate the viewer from genre expectations while exploring disturbing political themes. By the time he announced that he was readying his third project with Universal (historically the friendliest Hollywood home for horror), Peele had reached the industry pantheon occupied by Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese: moviemakers/cinephiles with enough box-office clout to pretty much call their own big-budgeted shots. (So if, say, they want to shoot in IMAX, as Peele insisted on for Nope and Nolan did for Dunkirk  and his upcoming Oppenheimer, they get their wish.) The fact that he is the first Black American filmmaker to do so, however, makes Peele more important than any of these others in our current moment, and also means that he still remains an outsider in a profoundly white-dominated industry. No matter the level of business Peele can generate with his films, he will never be an inside player.
This seeming disadvantage actually provides Peele with the artistic advantages he deploys in Nope, which is framed by two incidents that occur a few decades apart. The first one occurs in 1998, when, during the TV studio recording of an insipid-looking sitcom titled Gordy’s Home— about a family who provides a home for their beloved chimp, the eponymous Gordy—a scene involving popping birthday balloons sets one of the performing simians off on a bloody rampage that runs six minutes and 13 seconds, killing or injuring the entire cast save one: the young Korean-American Jupe (short for Jupiter), who hides terrified under a table.
The second incident, which takes place years later (possibly in the present day), also involves Jupe (played as an adult by Steven Yeun), who is exploiting his child stardom from his other hit show, Kid Sheriff, with the faux-Western town amusement park Jupiter’s Claim, situated in the semi-rural area of Agua Dulce north of Los Angeles. At 6:13 p.m. one evening, Jupe witnesses the second mind-altering spectacle of his life: the appearance of a saucer-like UFO hovering over the area. At this same time, Jupe’s neighbour down the road, Otis (“OJ”) Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), observes the same event, only without Jupe’s kind of close encounter. This flying white thing seems to hide in a cloud that doesn’t move. It has…behaviour, which OJ, being an ace horse trainer, can detect. He refers to it as an animal, as “territorial,” that “it thinks this is his home.” He calls it “Jean Jacket,” after a horse that holds special meaning to him.
OJ is trying to keep his family business, Haywood Hollywood Horses, afloat after the bizarre death of his father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), who was killed on horseback in a corral by a nickel that dropped from the sky and lodged in his skull. Living in a large but lonesome-looking two-story house that recalls the ranch mansions of Giant (1959) and Days of Heaven (1979), OJ is frustrated that he’s getting no help from his energetic but somewhat scattered sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who works various hustles around town and is alienated from the horse business (for good reasons, we later learn). OJ is in the ignominious position of having to sell off stock for cash flow, and Jupe is one of his steady customers. Peele satirizes OJ’s situation in a sequence that critiques Hollywood’s strict caste hierarchies of “below the line” crew workers (such as horse trainers), “talent” (such as, of all people, Donna Mills), snooty directors, and higher-end technicians—embodied in smack-talking cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott)—while also supplying us with vital information of the cinephilic roots of OJ’s business. (Emerald explains that the Black rider on a thoroughbred horse recorded by Eadweard Muybridge in his 1884–85 series “Animal Locomotion” with his invented photographic device, the zoopraxiscope—a kind of early movie camera—was a man named Haywood, OJ’s and Em’s direct relative.) The gig ends in failure, because of one telling factor: direct a mirror at a horse, and you’ll spook him. OJ understands animal behaviour in a world that has forgotten it.
Peele is elaborately setting things up for a payoff, but his deconstructed storytelling—such as his startling, disassociated opening shot (which recalls Kubrick’s edict that a good movie should begin with the most interesting image the viewer has seen all day), his deliberately jagged back-and-forth sequencing between OJ’s place and Jupe’s amusement park, his notably anti-Spielbergian pacing that creates suspenseful build and climax through the uncertainty of what exactly we’re watching—distracts the first-time viewer from catching on to his master plan. It even seems that, during long stretches of Nope, the pacing is somehow off, or at least not conforming to the rhythm dictated by Hollywood grammar. Some shots may appear to be held too long; the cutting of scenes yields a destabilizing effect, with locations suddenly changed; sudden intertitles mean almost nothing when we first see them (“Ghost,” “Clover”), echoing Kubrick’s weird intertitles in The Shining (1980). Odder still is the fact that many other scenes are classically delivered, with everything appearing to conform to the Hollywood norm.
These modal shifts are nearly undetectable on a first viewing, especially if that first viewing is in an IMAX cinema, where the impact of the engulfing image is a distraction in itself. But on a second viewing in standard widescreen (you won’t miss anything, since the action was framed for widescreen), Peele’s subversive strategies begin to be apparent: he patiently takes the tropes of all kinds of genres—including the TV sitcom, Westerns, ’50s science fiction, family comedies, men-on-a-mission movies, even Hitchcock—quotes from them dutifully, and then breaks them apart. A fine example is a genuinely terrifying scene, edited and staged to excruciating effect, in which OJ seems to be having a seriously Close Encounter—until it turns into a comedy scene with OJ punching an alien that turns out to be one of Jupe’s kid performers in otherworldly cosplay (thus reversing the comedy-to-horror pattern of Get Out). Another is the elaborate, tour de force finale sequence, nearly 30 minutes long, that involves everything from a self-referential gag (as OJ’s now-ally Antlers Holst—his name alone being a sly musical joke—attempts to capture “the impossible shot” of the UFO on a hand-cranked IMAX camera) to rude interruptions to the pace of the action (the sudden arrival of a motorcycling TMZ reporter named…Muybridge!), all braided into an apparent dance of death between OJ and Jean Jacket.
This final confrontation is truly a spectacle, with the “ship”—which has sucked up its human prey in vacuuming whirlwinds in images meant to resemble the Rapture, but with a violent twist—unfolding into a white-winged fabric entity that looks as if it were designed by Frank Gehry. OJ had previously referred to Jean Jacket as a “bad miracle,” the key dialogue line that points to Peele’s mission. The dynamically sculptural image of the animal killer is the most beautiful in the film, once again destabilizing genre expectations that evil must be revealed as horrible. Hollywood’s addiction to spectacle is what Peele is seeking to question, investigate, and take apart. What are we watching? What does it mean? Even though there may be a sense of victory at its conclusion, Nope leaves us with these questions, inquiring about the meaning behind the images that astonish us.
Cinema Scope Magazine