Jordan Peele’s Nope: Saying No to the Society of the Spectacle

by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

At first glance, Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022) appears to be a science fictional alien invasion narrative, though it also includes a liberal dash of horror. This mixture of genres is not unusual for alien invasion films, though Peele’s credentials as a horror director are especially strong, perhaps even stronger than the ones that Tobe Hooper brought to the alien invasion films he made in the mid-1980s. Nope, however, also adds important elements from the Western, which makes its generic mix even richer.In addition, the combination of genres in Nope is particularly postmodern, as the film playfully refuses to adhere to the conventions of any given genre. Indeed, the film overtly teases its viewers by encouraging certain expectations (especially in relation to the alien-invasion genre) that it has no intention of meeting. But this play with genre is part of a larger game that involves contemporary popular culture in general, focusing on the increasing emphasis on spectacle in film and other media and ultimately refusing to indulge in this tendency, thereby conducting a subtle critique of the society of the spectacle as a whole.

Peele, previously best known for his work as an actor in television sketch comedy, burst on the scene with the tremendous success of his social horror film Get Out (2017) and has since become one of the movers and shakers of American popular culture, working extensively as a writer, director, and producer. His success as a director has garnered a multi-film distribution deal with Universal Pictures; it has also given him access to considerable resources, including soaring production budgets, moving from the $4.5 millionof Get Out, to the $20 million of Us (2019), to the $68 million of Nope. The marketing of the latter was shrewdly circumspect, creating considerable anticipation among audiences who were just beginning to return to theaters after the whole film industry had been put on hold as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The official trailer for the film revealed very little, though it did contribute to the growing tide of rumors that this might be some sort of Spielbergian alien invasion film, with echoes of both Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1979) and ET the Extraterrestrial (1982) contained in the trailer[1]. In short, the stage was very well set for a film that is all about setting up expectations and then exploding them, especially where genre is concerned. As Gerrrick Kennedy puts it, the film well illustrates Peele’s “commitment to disrupting genre films.”

Nope, however, is perhaps even more ambitious, disrupting Hollywood film in general.The fact that it incorporates elements from so many genres is one sign of this broader goal, as is the fact that it employs primarily black characters (plus one important Korean American character and one important Hispanic character) in roles that have traditionally been filled by white characters, nodding toward the racial politics that have been so crucial to Peele’s earlier films. Perhaps the most important sign of the breadth of Nope’s satirical targets is the focus it maintains throughout on the notion of spectacle. This focus is aimed most obviously at the prominence of spectacle in recent Hollywood films, such as superhero films, though it should be noted that the genres incorporated most prominently within Nope have all sometimes relied on spectacle as well. Meanwhile, read through the classic Marxist deployment of the notion of spectacle in Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), the critique of spectacle that is contained within Nope also implies a much broader critique of certain trends within capitalist societies that were just becoming clear when Debord did his original analysis but that have become even stronger in the era of neoliberalism. In this essay, we read Nope through the optic of Debord’s work on the society of the spectacle, with appeal also to the related concept of postmodernism, especially as theorized by Fredric Jameson.

Playing with Expectations: Genre in Nope

When Nope first begins, we see the Universal logo wrapping around the surface of the earth, as it is wont to do, but also we hear snippets of sound from what we will discover is a sitcom entitled Gordy’s Home, featuring a family with a pet chimp named Gordy. The dialogue from this sitcom indicates that the father of the sitcom family is a rocket scientist, just as we see the full universal logo, with earth behind the name and in front of a background of the stars. For attentive viewers (especially viewers expecting to see an alien-invasion film), these first few seconds seem rife with significance. In addition to the visual imagery, for example, these moments link into a prominent element of UFO lore—the notion that our television broadcasts might leak into space, traveling vast distances and eventually being picked up by alien intelligences. It is only a step from here to deducing that the low level of intelligence contained in most sitcoms might suggest to imperialistic aliens that the earth would be easy pickings.

There is no indication that the otherworldly phenomenon at the heart of Nope was attracted to earth by these broadcasts. In fact, there is no real indication that this phenomenon is even extraterrestrial, though the characters within the film tend to assume that it is. Most audiences will assume so as well, having been prepared by a panoply of alien invasion films over the past seventy years. Meanwhile, there is nothing within the film that overtly disproves the hypothesis that this phenomenon was attracted to earth by these broadcasts, though it does tend to indicate that the object, even if extraterrestrial, might be some sort of animal rather than a spaceship, causing the characters in the film to dub it “Jean Jacket,” after a horse once owned by the Haywoods[2]. In any case, the screen now shifts to a brief sequence on a rundown train that introduces the logo of Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, with sound from the sitcom still playing in the background. This logo, featuring a gruesome disembodied hand stirring a cup of coffee or tea, visually evokes the genre of horror, as does the reputation of this company. The screen then goes black and the sound from the sitcom suddenly shifts to sounds that might be associated with horror as well, further confusing our generic expectations. Later moments in the film (shots of blood running down a window, a house that looks haunted, and so on) will provide prototypical horror visuals, as well as further suggestions that we might be watching a horror film.

Then, as these sounds continue, we see on the screen an Old Testament epigraph, from Nahum 3.6: “I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” In this verse, the prophet Nahum announces the upcoming destruction of the sinful city of Ninevah, capital of the then-great Assyrian Empire. This epigraph thus sets an apocalyptic tone that adds to expectations that we might be about to see a film centered on an alien invasion but tilting into horror. At the same time, anyone familiar with Peele’s work might expect that the sitcom cues us to be prepared for a dash of comedy as well. It will only be later, though, that the evocation of the notion of spectacle in this particular translation of the Bible verse (which approximates but does not match the King James Version) turns out to foreshadow the importance of the notion of spectacle throughout the upcoming film. This opening sequence now moves to a shot of the set of that sitcom, which has been wrecked by a deadly outbreak of violence on the part of the chimp—though we at this time have no idea exactly what we are seeing. This shot also includes one of a shoe seeming to defy gravity by standing upright on its heel, suggesting that something uncanny might be going on[3].

The film proper now begins with a shot of Otis Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), doing routine chores on the family horse ranch in the early morning hours. As daylight comes, though, the ranch’s routine is interrupted when a hail of (largely metallic) debris pours from the sky as if expelled from the heavens. A piece of debris (apparently an ordinary nickel) pierces the right eye of Daniel’s father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), ultimately killing him. At this point, the alien-invasion motif has been firmly established, as is the notion that this invasion might be a bad thing, indeed. However, the film maintains its mysteries, and the film next shifts to its opening credits, displayed over a strange, unidentifiable visual, with equally strange sounds playing in the background. This sequence then ends with display of what is often considered to be the first “film” an 1878 short in which Eadweard Muybridge used multiple cameras to produce a series of still photographs that were then combined to show a horse in motion. What many people do not remember is the fact, emphasized in the next scene in the film, that this horse is being ridden by a black jockey (who has hitherto remained anonymous).

The scene then shifts to a point six months later when Otis Jr. is with his horse Lucky on the set where a commercial is being shot featuring the horse and aging former star Bonnie Clayton (played by former soap star Donna Mills). Clayton is comically taken aback when she learns that Otis Jr. routinely goes by “OJ,” though nothing further will be made of this obvious gag in the film[4]. The setup for the commercial, which is to be filmed by supposedly gifted cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), is delayed by the late arrival of OJ’s sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), whose overflowing personality clearly marks her as the showperson of the family, as opposed to OJ’s more reserved and taciturn demeanor[5]. Emerald launches into an impromptu presentation (using a script learned from her father) on the long history of the Haywood clan with both horses and movies, centered on the family legend (which may or may not be historically accurate) that the black jockey in the Muybridge film had been her great, great, great grandfather. Then the shooting is interrupted altogether when the horse gets spooked and nearly injures Clayton, causing the Haywoods to be fired from the job.

There is a clear suggestion, via the role played by the Muybridge film, that African Americans have been involved in the film industry from the very beginning but have never received the credit they were due. Otherwise, race and racism are not overt issues in this film. There is, for example, no direct indication that the hard times upon which the Haywood Ranch has fallen have anything to do with their race. Meanwhile, this film features two other “ethnic” characters whose ethnicity is never even mentioned and does not seem to be a factor. One of these is the clearly Hispanic Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a technician from a local electronics store who helps the Haywoods set up a surveillance system on the ranch in the hope that they can capture footage of what they believe to be a flying saucer lurking in the clouds over the ranch. Angel functions essentially as a sort of amusing sidekick whose function is primarily comic relief, though the fact that he seems to be very good with electronics might deliver a subtle message of its own, among other things suggesting that there are other forms of identity (such as nerdiness) that might trump ethnicity in some cases.

Ways of Seeing: Nope and the Society of the Spectacle

The other major “ethnic” character in Nope is Ricky “Jupe” Park (played by Korean American actor Steven Yeun), a former child actor who had been one of the stars of Gordy’s Room back in the 1990s. After the disastrous end of that show, his acting career has tanked, but he still has a show business career of sorts as the owner and impresario of Jupiter’s Claim, Wild West-themed amusement park that borders on the Haywood Ranch. Jupiter’s Claim is a pretty small-time affair, but it is doing well enough that Park has been buying the horses that are being sold off by the Haywoods to try to keep their ranch afloat. Indeed, he has even made an offer to buy the entire ranch so he can expand his theme park, but OJ seems to have no interest in that offer.

This Wild West theme park represents an overt commodification of the American past of a kind that has a long history of its own, particularly in the long tradition of Westerns in film. Indeed, Nope itself displays many of the characteristics of the Western genre, including all those horses in the film, as well as a strong emphasis on the Western landscape, though this landscape was shot by a European cinematographer, Hoyte van Hoytema—best known for his work with Christopher Nolan on films such as Interstellar (2014) but with horror credentials as well, including the Swedish vampire classic Let the Right One In (2008), noted for its effective use of the wintery Swedish landscape. In addition, the British actor Kaluuya plays the lead role somewhat with the tight-lipped demeanor of a Western cowboy hero, a strong, silent, Gary Cooper type[6]. And, finally, the soundtrack of Nope, composed by Michael Abels,features a liberal dose of music clearly meant to evoke the Western, and especially the Spaghetti Western, whose music was often so distinctive. The Spaghetti Western might also be indicated by the Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, worn by OJ through one segment of the film. This shirt is one of many sartorial references to 1990s alt-rock groups in the film, but the fact that it features an image of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata recalls the importance of Zapata himself and of the Mexican Revolution in general in the Spaghetti Western[7].

Of course, the role of the Wild West in American popular culture actually predates the rise of the film industry, having originated in the dime novels and live Wild West shows of the late nineteenth century. The most successful of these shows was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a spectacular staging of horsemanship and marksmanship founded by the legendary Western hero Buffalo Bill Cody in 1883, subsequently a long and successful run touring in both America and Europe. But this show, as Richard Slotkin notes, went well beyond the display of the skills of Cody and other performers, extending to a re-enactment of American history itself via “a series of spectacles which purported to re-enact scenes exemplifying different ‘Epochs’ of American history” (Slotkin 1998, 67). Slotkin (in conjunction with a demonstration of the centrality of the Western film to the development of America’s national identity) notes that the show attempted to present these spectacles as serious history, but nevertheless showed a strong tendency toward “conflating [history] with mythology” (69). This conflation of history with mythology, of course, was especially strong in the case of the Wild West, and it is clear that Cody’s show was an important forerunner of the Western film and of modern American media and celebrity culture in general[8].

The legacy of Wild West shows is directly evoked in Nope in the fact that Jupiter’s Claim features a live Wild West show, the Star Lasso Experience, hosted by Park and featuring his rootin’—tootin’ Southern wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt), as well as their three young sons (dressed as aliens). The show, however, adds a distinctive modern twist to the Wild West show by focusing on an alien invasion motif. “Every Friday for the past six months,” Park claims in his introduction to the show, “my family and I have bore witness to an absolute spectacle.” Spectacle is what this show is all about, of course, and Park’s evocation of spectacle in relation to the fact that he claims to have been regularly spotting flying saucers reminds us that there is, indeed, a spectacular dimension to the notion of flying saucers. Park goes on to explain: “We are being surveilled by an alien species I call ‘The Viewers.’”

Park’s evocation of “the viewers” is particularly apt here because of the way it suggests the “viewers” of films (including this one) and, by extension, the audiences of all contemporary media, who are so ever-present that almost everyone in modern America, via mechanisms such as social media, has a sense of being on display for an audience. We never see the background of this conclusion, but apparently Park believes he has reached an agreement with the aliens aboard a UFO to appear at his show every Friday; it further appears that he has arranged to placate the aliens by sacrificing horses to them, which would certainly explain why he keeps buying horses. Of course, the horses he is buying from the Haywoods are extremely well-trained and extremely expensive (and the crowds at his shows are extremely small), so it would seem very financially unsound (not to mention inhumane) to employ them in this way—perhaps suggesting that Park is really desperate for attention and for an audience. The six-month timeframe does match the period during which the phenomenon has been in the area, though, and we do, earlier in the film, see the phenomenon appear in the sky, observed by OJ just as OJ sees Jupe’s live show underway in the distance. In any case, in the only actual performance of the show we see, he seems to be offering the horse Lucky to the aliens, but the performance is interrupted by the appearance of what appears to be a real flying saucer, sucking up Park, his family, his crew, and his entire audience into its giant maw (but leaving Lucky, who refuses to come out of his glass and metal enclosure). Meanwhile, Park’s use of the word “spectacle” resonates with other carefully planted uses of the word in the film (from the Biblical epigraph forward) to call attention to the central role of spectacle in the film.

Peele himself put it quite bluntly during the Hollywood premiere of the film, declaring that “the film is about the human addiction to spectacle and the monetization of it. In the last five years or so, it feels like we’ve been inundated with it. We’re now addicted to spectacle, which has negative consequences, and we’re in over our heads with this addiction” (qtd in Chi 2022). In an interview, Peele also makes clear his intention to focus the film on the modern phenomenon of the spectacle: “I think people might expect for a villain to emerge in a more clear way in this film, and it doesn’t quite happen like that. The villain is this otherworldly threat. And it is also something that everyone has in common—everyone’s relationship to the spectacle” (Kennedy 2022).

The crucial referent here is the notion of our contemporary late capitalist society as the “society of the spectacle,” a term made prominent in social criticism after the 1967 publication of Guy Debord’s study of that title, who sees the contemporary Western world as informed by the commodification of everything, the total triumph of exchange value over use value, and the colonization of reality by images. Debord’s society of the spectacle has become even more relevant in the decades succeeding its appearance. It is virtually identical to the kind of society that would eventually, thanks primarily to the work of Jameson, come to be associated closely with postmodernism. Almost all of the characters in Nope are engaged in creating (and monetizing) show business spectacles in one way or another, from the training of animals to appear in films, television, and commercials (the Haywoods); to the shooting of films and commercials (Holst), to the Wild West show of the Parks. Even Torres, a clerk and technician in a retail store, works with technologies that help people to display themselves or to surveil others electronically. At the same time, Nope, like all of Peele’s films, is itself a postmodern work, adding complexity to its critique of postmodernist spectacle[9].

In short, Nopedeals quite extensively with both the kind of spectacle that has long been a key element of Hollywood film and the kind of spectacle that Debord (with later elaborations proposed by Jean Baudrillard and Jameson) associates with the fundamental texture of life under late capitalism. Of course, these two kinds of spectacles are mutually interdependent, and Nope is strongly suspicious of both of them. Film spectacle and other deployments of spectacle in popular culture (especially in advertising) made major contributions to the evolution of the society of the spectacle throughout the twentieth century, ultimately leading to a mediatization of all experience that essentially collapses the boundary between pop cultural fiction and material reality, each of which simply becomes a source of images for popular consumption.

One seemingly minor, throwaway moment in Nope is particularly telling in terms of the kind of society that is being portrayed in the film. When OJ and Emerald visit Park to sell him another horse, he lets them view the secret room in which he keeps paraphernalia related to Gordy’s Home and its spectacular demise. These artifacts (which include that peculiar gravity-defying shoe in a glass case) and Park’s description of them also indicate that the show itself became an object for representation in the popular media. As Park notes, the network “tried to bury it” to avoid bad publicity, “but it was a spectacle. People are obsessed.” In evidence, he has on display a Mad magazine cover featuring a berserk Gordy shrugging and wearing a shirt bearing the inscription, “WHAT, ME WORRY?” that reproduces the famous motto of Mad’s mascot, Alfred E. Neuman[10].

However, we learn that Park’s favorite pop cultural rendition of the Gordy’s Home disaster occurred in a skit on Saturday Night Live (SNL)called “Bad Gordy,” featuring comedian Chris Kattan as Gordy, who indeed appeared as a regular cast member on SNL from 1996 to 2003. Kattan portrayed a number of characters during that time, including “Mr. Peepers,” a sort of missing link between man and ape with a tendency to get out of control, so Kattan would be a perfect choice to play the berserk Gordy. Meanwhile, the indication that SNL might turn such a tragedy into the stuff of pop comedy is one of many suggestions in this film of the way in which our society of the spectacle tends to convert anything and everything into entertainment-for-profit[11].

After seeing the object in the sky during Park’s show, OJ tells Emerald that he saw and heard something big in the sky, moving fast, but too quiet to be an airplane. It is clear that she immediately assumes that he is talking about a UFO. They go to Fry’s, a local electronics superstore in the mode of Best Buy, to get some surveillance cameras, hoping to get UFO footage with them. The interior of Fry’s is itself a microcosm of our postmodern society, with screens and cameras everywhere. Emerald proposes that they should try to get footage good enough to sell, perhaps to a website like “Cyber Dominion,” though the holy grail in her mind is to use the footage to get a guest spot on Oprah. They describe to Angel, who is working in the store, what has been going on at the ranch, to which he quickly comes up with the possible explanation that “maybe you’re in a UFO hotspot.” Angel, in fact, is perhaps the most enthusiastic of all the characters in the film about the possibility of spotting the UFO, a prospect he finds so exciting that he quickly joins their “team” in attempting to get that footage.

All that surveillance equipment deployed by Angel, meanwhile, is accompanied by a broader emphasis on cameras; film and video cameras are repeatedly in evidence in the film, which acts not only in a reflexive way to comment on the fact that we are looking at a recorded film but also to reinforce the emphasis on observation and surveillance—on looking and being looked at—that runs throughout the narrative. Nope clearly calls attention to our contemporary surveillance society and how the presence of so much electronic equipment in our world makes surveillance quite easy—as when Angel monitors the feed of the cameras on the Haywood ranch without their permission. But the film focuses even more on our contemporary desire to be seen, as if establishing a public media presence can somehow stabilize our shaky postmodern identities.

The emphasis on seeing and being seen in Nope is supported by the fact that this film makes direct reference to eyes perhaps more than any other science fiction film since Blade Runner back in 1982. A number of shots in the film call attention to eyes, such as the “eye-see-you” signals passed between OJ and Emerald or the pop-eyed wolf in love that appears on the front of the Jesus Lizard T-shirt worn by Emerald.Many of these references call attention to the vulnerability of eyes and to the trouble they can get us into. Thus, the first major eye reference in the film is the shot we see of Otis Sr.’s bloodied right eye socket, the eye having been destroyed by the nickel that shot through it and lodged in his brain.Other more subtle references (such as a quick mention of the band Third Eye Blind) also call attention to the vulnerability of eyes. Meanwhile, soon after the death of Otis Sr. we get that scene on the commercial set in which Otis Jr. warns the crew not to look the horse Lucky in the eye, lest it get spooked. Then a crew member holds a mirror in front of the horse’s face, causing the horse to get spooked by the reflection of its own eye.

It is, in fact, his experience with horses that leads OJ to conclude that looking “Jean Jacket” in the eye will provoke it as well—and there is considerable evidence in the film that he is correct (even though it is not generally clear where Jean Jacket’s eyes might be). It also appears that the mirrored helmet being worn by a TMZ reporter who shows up on the scene provokes Jean Jacket to attack him, very much like the mirror that provoked Lucky. It should also be noted that this reporter’s helmet oddly has only one eye hole, which resonates not only with the fate of Otis Sr. but also with the song “Purple People Eater,” whose lyrics, quoted in the film by Holst, emphasize the one-eyed status of the song’s title figure.

Finally, the film puts a great deal of emphasis on the 1984 Corey Hart hit “Sunglasses at Night,” which creates an atmosphere of menace when it plays in Angel’s van but is slowed down and creepily distorted by the “anti-electric field” emanated by the phenomenon. But this song might also contribute to the notion of not looking at the phenomenon, because wearing sunglasses would presumably hide one’s eyes and prevent the thing from realizing that it was being looked at. On the other hand, the TMZ guy never takes off his helmet, though it is possible that Jean Jacket would interpret the single round window in the helmet as an “eye.”

Finally, no discussion of eyes in this film would be complete without a discussion of the performance of Daniel Kaluuya, one of the great eye actors in contemporary cinema. As had been the case in Get Out as well, many shots emphasize Kaluuya’s large, expressive eyes, which he uses to good advantage. In the case of Nope, however, many of these shots are in near darkness, lit just so as to make the large whites of his eyes shine in the dark. These shots are effective in themselves, suggesting that OJ perhaps feels more emotions that he expresses with his words. It is also impossible, though, to ponder these shots without thinking of the baleful classic Hollywood legacy of placing exaggerated emphasis on the bulging white eyes of black characters, typically in order to make them seem comically frightened. In Nope, Peele seizes control of this kind of racist imagery and turns it into a serious, nonracist cinematic tool, at the same time subtly reminding us of the problematic use of such imagery in the past.

The Oprah Shot: Nope and the Transience of Celebrity

Emerald makes it clear during the scene in which she and OJ shop for surveillance equipment in Fry’s that she hopes to use this equipment to get UFO footage that will make them rich and famous “for life.” A major theme of this film is not only the rampant desire for fame, but the fleeting nature of fame once it is acquired. The notorious notion of “fifteen-minutes of fame” has frequently been trotted out to describe our contemporary mediascape, and Nope serves, among other things as an extended meditation on that notion. If Emerald hopes to become famous, we also see other characters who have been famous but no longer are. One of the key functions of the inserted sitcom in Nope is to provide a reminder of all the actors who have briefly gained attention then faded into obscurity. The most poignant examples of this phenomenon are the child actors from Gordy’s Home, especially Park, the once famous child actor who now, a quarter of a century later, is still trading on his past, immersed in memorabilia from his childhood acting career and soaking up whatever attention he can get from the relatively sparse crowds that attend his performances as the host of Star Lasso Experience. Indeed, he is so desperate for attention that he builds his show around a dangerous attraction that ultimately leads to his death (and the deaths of his whole family). Also killed in the same incident is Mary Jo Elliott (played as a teenager by Sophia Coto), another former child actor from Gordy’s Home, who had been badly mauled during Gordy’s rampage. She is in the crowd at the Star Lasso Experience during the fateful “alien” attack, heavily veiled because her face had been ruined in the earlier chimpanzee attack. We catch just a glimpse of that ruined face beneath the veil; we can also see that she is wearing a shirt that bears an image of her once-pretty face from her Gordy’s Home days before the attack. It’s a subtle message that many viewers will probably miss, but the point is clear: Mary Jo is still clinging to memories of her fifteen minutes of fame as a child actor, despite the traumatic way that period ended.

The desperate desire for attention on the part of many characters in this film is echoed visually by all those skydancers that populate the film, objects that are pure spectacle, designed specifically to attract attention, no matter how ridiculous they might look. They also indicate the venality of the postmodern desire for attention. These objects, originally developed for the 1996 Olympics, have become virtually ubiquitous as markers of commercial businesses (they are especially associated with used car lots) that hope to attract the attention (and the dollars) of passing motorists.

Peele’s decision to cast well-known actors from the past in the roles of Nope’s two oldest characters serves as something of a counter example to this emphasis on the fleeting aspect of celebrity. Donna Mills has worked regularly since her first appearance (in a soap opera) all the way back in the 1960s, but she is by far best known for her regular role in the primetime soap Knott’s Landing from 1980 to 1989. In terms of fame, Mills definitely peaked in the eighties, but her career shows that it is possible for actors to have long careers, though it is also surely the case that Mills’ longevity owes something to the fact that she is so recognizable from her work in that earlier decade, which has become so iconic in American popular culture. Keith David, meanwhile, has never been as famous as Mills was in the 1980s, but he is probably best remembered for his work in that decade, including in two iconic alien-invasion films directed by John Carpenter, The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988). But David has maintained his career at a stable level for decades, and one wonders if he wouldn’t be far more famous if he had been white.

The evocation of the Muybridge film makes this same point much more overtly. It is clearly quite possible that the identification of the rider in this film as a direct ancestor of the Haywoods is simply a family legend and might not be accurate. However, the point remains the same: Hollywood history is littered with unacknowledged contributions from creators of color, especially African Americans. Meanwhile, somewhat less overtly, Nope stands as a reminder that people of color could have made even more contributions if they had been given the chance. Even though Nope shows a somewhat skeptical attitude toward the Spielbergian Hollywood blockbuster, it nevertheless can be identified as a special type of precisely such a film. As such, it serves as a reminder that such films have simply not traditionally been made by black directors while centering on black characters. As Peele told Kennedy, “We got to do that big original blockbuster movie, and that in itself is part of what the movie’s about. It’s about taking up that space. It’s about existing. It’s about acknowledging the people who were erased in the journey to get here.”

If Nope is in this sense ambivalent in its attitude toward celebrity, it is also the case that this film is anything but an artsy rejection of spectacle-oriented films. Instead, it suggests that spectacle is an important resource for the filmmaker, as long as it is employed in a purposeful and intelligent way and not simply used for its own sake. Moreover, the film in many ways embraces its pop cultural status, depending for much of its impact on an audience that is pop-literate, especially with regard to alien-invasion films. However, it does play with that status, giving us a sort of mock happy ending in which the invader is destroyed, demolished by its inability to digest a giant plastic balloon, just as so much of the natural world has been damaged by plastic, that ultimate enemy of the natural. Emerald gets her much-desired Oprah shot (though possibly of questionable quality), and OJ is revealed to have survived, with smoke clearing to show him safely seated atop Lucky, in good Western cliché style.

If Nope refuses either to fully reject of to fully embrace the stereotypes of popular film, it clearly rejects the pretentiousness of many art films, especially through the representation of Holst. On the one hand, Holst challenges the desire for celebrity shown by Emerald, warning her, “Horse girl, this dream you’re chasing: the one where you end up at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you. It’s the dream you never wake up from.” On the other hand, Holst’s own motivations might be just as problematic. Most of what we see of him until he joins the group shows him cloistered in his home, watching footage from nature films he has shot, mostly of predators attacking their prey, suggesting that, for him, the perfect shot might involve just that sort of thing. He seems interested in neither wealth nor celebrity, but only in his “art.” As the whole group works to get footage of the phenomenon, he realizes that the natural light in the valley is becoming so ideal as to be “magic,” ultimately sacrificing himself so he can get the ultimate shot in this light, filming away as the phenomenon sucks him into its maw, feeling almost ecstatic, even though the shot is not likely ever to be seen.

Despite his tragic end and his deadpan demeanor, Holst is ultimately a comic figure in his own right, used to satirize pretentious filmmakers who take their art perhaps a bit too seriously. His ridiculous devotion to getting the perfect shot is a clear sign of the satirical intent in his depiction, as is his haughty declaration that “I tend to do one for them so I can do one for me,” suggesting that he is willing to do work-for-hire (such as the commercial we see him attempting to shoot in the film) in order to finance his more artsy projects. Perhaps the most amusing suggestion that the film is having fun at the expense of Holst (while also taking a jab at the tradition of extraterrestrials in popular culture) occurs as Holst, maintaining his characteristic straight-faced demeanor, recites the lyrics to “The Purple People Eater,” a comic novelty song by Sheb Wooley that reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts in 1958.

Nature vs. Spectacle: The Animals of Nope

The notion that the phenomenon at the heart of Nope might be an extraterrestrial animal is central to a constellation of animal motifs scattered throughout the film, including the roles played by Gordy the Chimp and by all those horses that are either trained by OJ or used by Park. These animals serve a number of purposes. For one thing, the many shots of OJ on horseback encourage the reading of Nope within the context of the Western film genre, in which horses have long been an iconic image. OJ knows very well that horses can be trained, but he also knows that they are big, powerful animals that must be treated with respect lest they become dangerous. This fact is demonstrated when Lucky gets spooked on that commercial set, though, in this case, the animal doesn’t do any real harm. We also see how dangerous animals can be in those snippets of the nature footage shot by Holst. But the most dramatic demonstration of this fact occurs on the set of Gordy’s Home, where a professionally trained chimp (perhaps already on edge from the stress of being on that set, with all the attendant hubbub) is set off by something as small as a balloon pop and then goes murderously berserk.

Young Ricky Park survives that incident (though not without clear trauma), but he apparently does not learn its fundamental lesson, perhaps partly because, in his mind, Gordy trusted him and would never attack him, regardless of what happened with other people on the set. The film does not clearly establish that Jean Jacket is an animal, nor does it establish that this phenomenon is extraterrestrial. To make matters more complicated, if the thing is an extraterrestrial “animal,” then it is not really clear what that means, given that the very concept of “animal” is a terrestrial one. In any case, if Jean Jacket is an extraterrestrial living creature of some sort, then there is no real reason to expect that it would behave like a terrestrial animal. All of that said, the point of the representation of animals in the film is that they are Other to humans and should be approached accordingly. Park assumes that Jean Jacket understands that he will regularly feed it horses if it will contribute to his live show, then pays the price when the phenomenon does not behave the way he expects, thus replicating the incident with Gordy.

In the final analysis, both Gordy and Jean Jacket are violently destroyed as a result of their interactions with humans. Indeed, recalling the deer of Get Out or the rabbits of Us, it would appear thatanimals tend to meet rather horrific ends in Peele’s films. On the most obvious level, this motif can be read as a commentary on the treatment of animals by humans or, by extension, as a commentary on the treatment of Others by humans. In Nope, though, given that humans attempt to employ all of the animals in the film as show business props, as elements of the spectacle, it might make even more sense to read the “animals,” including the phenomenon, as representatives of nature as a whole, as opposed to the artificiality of culture—and the special artificiality of the society of the spectacle (or of postmodernism), which essentially leaves no place for the natural to thrive. As Jameson puts it, the postmodern world is one in which “everything is now organized and planned; nature has been triumphantly blotted out” (310). The humans of Nope have attempted to tame all of the film’s “animals” and to incorporate them into the spectacle. Yet these animals—and nature as a whole—stubbornly retain their own material reality, however foreign that reality is to the spectacle.

Nature has been effaced amid the hyperreality of the spectacle, but it still exists and must be respected, as humans have so often failed to do. It is within this context that the spectacular transformation of Jean Jacket from a garden variety flying saucer into a huge, magnificent, angel-like something[12](only to be spectacularly destroyed) is best understood as a reflexive commentary on Nope itself, which, after all, is itself a postmodern work. This transformation and subsequent explosion certainly add an element of spectacle to the film that would not have been available had the phenomenon retained its pedestrian “flying saucer” shape. Emerald’s Oprah shot is certainly made more impressive by this transformation, but Peele’s final sequence is made much more impressive as well, reminding us that this film could easily have been much more of a spectacle, much more of the kind of effects-driven extravaganza that audiences have come to expect science fiction films to be. To that kind of film, as opposed to the kind of thoughtful, relevant films we have come to expect from him, Jordan Peele delivers a resounding answer in the title of this film.

Notes

References

Booker, M. Keith, and Isra Daraiseh. 2021. “Lost in the Funhouse: Allegorical Horror and Cognitive Mapping in Jordan Peele’s Us.” Horror Studies 12 (1): 119–31.

Braxton, Greg. 2022. “6 Key Spielberg References to Watch Out For in Nope.” Los Angeles Times, 22 July 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-07-22/nope-movie-jordan-peele-steven-spielberg-references-explained. Accessed 10 September 2022.

Chi, Paul. 2022. “Nope Star Daniel Kaluuya Is Jordan Peele’s ‘Favorite Actor in the World.’” Vanity Fair, 19 July 2022, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2022/07/nope-movie-premiere-jordan-peele-daniel-kaluuya. Accessed 11 September 2022.

Debord, Guy. 2014. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Translated by Ken Knabb, Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets.

Jameson, Fredric. 1991. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Kennedy, Gerrick D. 2022. “Jordan Peele and Keke Palmer Look to the Sky.” GQ, 20 July 2022, https://www.gq.com/story/gq-hype-jordan-peele-and-keke-palmer. Accessed 10 September 2022.

Slotkin, Richard. 1998. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Yamato, Jen. 2022. “Nope Explained: Gordy the Chimpanzee and More Clues to Unpacking Jordan Peele’s Epic.” Los Angeles Times, 23 July 2022, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-07-23/nope-movie-jordan-peele-gordys-home-chimpanzee-shoe-clues-explained. Accessed 10 September 2022.

Notes

[1] See Braxton (2022) for a compilation of some apparent references to Spielberg in the film itself.

[2] We use the term “phenomenon” herein to indicate the ambiguous nature of this object.

[3] On the other hand, Yamato believes this impossibly suspended shoe to be an indication of the unreliability of the memory of Park with respect to this traumatic incident.

[4] The name “OJ” now inevitably evokes the 1995 murder trial of former football star OJ Simpson, which was one of the great media spectacles of the 1990s. However, Otis Jr. presumably received this nickname before that event.

[5] The director of this commercial, incidentally, is played by Oz Perkins, whose own directorial work has been mainly in horror films, but whose most famous horror connection comes from the fact that he is the son of Anthony Perkins, legendary star of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

[6] Cooper’s Western characters, of course, were given to laconic expressions such as “yep” and “nope,” providing still another resonance of the film’s title.

[7] Spaghetti Westerns set in the Mexican Revolution are so prominent that they have acquired their own label—the “Zapata Western”—though, in point of fact, many American Westerns (such as the 1966 classic The Professionals)might be called Zapata Westerns as well. Indeed, an important forerunner of all Zapata Westerns is Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! (1952), a highly fictionalized biopic starring a young Marlon Brando as Zapata.

[8] This aspect of Cody’s career is brilliantly portrayed (and critiqued) in Robert Altman’s superb, but underappreciated film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

[9] On the postmodern aspects of Us, see Booker and Daraiseh.

[10] This issue of Mad, according to the cover, is #359, from July 1997, the actual version of which featured the 1997 film Batman & Robin on each of its four different covers. This fictional version in the film also indicates that this issue contains features that focus on such works as the disaster film Dante’s Peak (1997), the rock band Third Eye Blind (whose debut album appeared in 1997), something called “Casual Sex” (perhaps the 1988 film, which was released on VHS in 1997), as well as something called “Heaven’s Gate,” presumably a reference to the 1997 mass religious suicide event, not the 1980 film. Given all of this 1997 material and the 1997 date of the issue, it is not clear why Nope clearly indicates that the Gordy’s Home disaster occurred in 1998, after this issue of Mad was published—unless, of course, this is a fake cover ginned up by Park as part of his desperate search for attention. It is also possible that Park simply misremembers the event as occurring in 1998.

[11] That a film from Monkeypaw productions would feature a killer chimp might seem entirely appropriate. In addition, as Yamato outlines, this motif seems to have been derived from a real-world case of an amok chimp—a case that led a survivor of the chimp attack to appear on Oprah.

[12] The transformed Jean Jacket also bears similarities to certain undersea creatures, recalling the submarine aliens of James Cameron’s The Abyss (1989).