A Spectacle About Spectacle – NOPE

By Maribeth Thueson

The trailers for Nope have been teasing us about the movie for the last year, never giving away much, but leading to a great deal of anticipation for writer/director Jordan Peele’s third film. Is the movie a modern Western? A sci-fi thriller? A horror flick? An incisive dissertation on race in America? Yup, yup, yup, and sorta.

Nope is brimming with ideas,and it borrows freely from other movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws, along with creature features and alien invasion movies from the 1950s. But what it’s really about is our craving for spectacle, what it costs to provide the spectacle, and what it costs us to consume it.

Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play siblings OJ (short for Otis, Jr.) and Emerald Heywood. Their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), is killed in a mysterious incident in which debris, nickels and keys, fall from the sky, and now they are left to run the family ranch, which supplies horses to the movies and TV. Laconic OJ is good with horses but not with clients, and bubbly Emerald wants to be an actor and sees the horses as a side gig. Needless to say, the horse business isn’t doing well, especially since the Heywood’s horse, which misbehaves as a result of human stupidity during a stunt rehearsal, can easily be replaced by a computer-generated horse. 

OJ is forced to sell the horse to his neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who owns a rinky-dink Western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim. Jupe was a child actor in a sitcom that starred a chimpanzee. One day during filming, the chimp (itself a CG and motion-capture creation) was startled by popping balloons and ran amok, seriously injuring Jupe’s human costars (a horrifying scene told in flash-back). Jupe survived the attack by hiding under a table, but now as an adult fetishizes his childhood trauma and puts it on display to paying customers in a shrine at the park. 

When OJ thinks he sees something resembling a flying saucer flitting through the clouds above the ranch, Keke comes up with the idea of filming it – getting the “Oprah shot,” as she puts it – and selling the film to a website to make the money necessary to save the ranch. They go to an electronics store to buy cameras, and when the clerk, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), helps with the installation, he becomes part of their little band. Later, they go so far as to enlist the help of veteran cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to try to get the perfect shot.

It turns out, though, that Jupe is also aware of the visitor in the clouds, and has built a show around making it appear, certain the spectacle will make him famous again. But as OJ says, you can’t control a beast, you can only bargain with it, and the stunt goes horribly awry. The addiction to spectacle, on Jupe’s and the audience’s part, only leads to tragedy.

Peele takes pains to link the Heywood family to the very beginning of the movies; their ancestor was supposedly the jockey in a series of still shots taken in the 1870s of a running horse that, when strung together showing the horse’s gait, was arguably the first movie. The jockey’s name was lost to history, and the Heywoods, who should be at the center of the entertainment industry, are instead outsiders. Little wonder, then, that when the saucer appears, they don’t go to the authorities. 

It’s a little harder to figure out why they don’t flee or prepare to fight the saucer. After all, why has it chosen their valley to reside in? What does it want? Why do all electronic devices go dead when it is overhead? (My theory is that it uses electro-magnetic propulsion, like the bullet trains in Japan.) Their choice of spectacle as the go-to way to make a buck sucks them into a whirlwind of fear and danger, but they only double down on their idea.

But while Jupe gets a backstory, OJ and Emerald don’t. We don’t know why their personalities are so different, or how their father raised them, although Kaluuya and Palmer make believable siblings. Many of the film’s ideas aren’t fully developed, and at times logic is lacking. For instance, OJ comes to believe that if you don’t look at the saucer, it won’t hurt you. This might or might not work when it comes to the entity, but does it work when the entity is spectacle itself?
The thing is, we as the audience are there for the spectacle, too. There’s plenty of it in this film, from the cinematography that makes the most of the dusty valley and the wide-open sky, to the saucer sucking things up in a tornado, to the air dancers deployed around the ranch to track the saucer’s movements, to the shot of OJ as a cowboy-knight on a white charger. And it’s not always necessary for a movie to mean something. Sometimes it’s okay to want distraction and spectacle. So are we complicit in requiring movies to feature bigger and better effects to the detriment of story and character? Are we complicit in ignoring our real problems, obsessing instead over celebrity scandals and political fear mongering? Are we still going to see and enjoy Nope? Yup, yup, and yup.

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