Groundbreaking writer, producer, and director, Jordan Peele’s latest blockbuster hit, NOPE, is not what you were expecting. I promise.
Less than two minutes into the film, my theater became filled with various hushed and not-so-hushed murmurs. ‘Are we in the right movie?’ ‘What is this?’ Which, if I’m being transparent, is exactly what I was hoping to experience.
My first memory of having heard about Jordan Peele’s upcoming film NOPE was a trailer that I had seen, which featured an impressive cast full of POC characters set in a Western landscape of sprawling barren land and mountains all around beneath wide-open blue skies. Daniel Kaluuya on horseback stood out to me most then, along with the image of Steven Yeun’s character in his iconic cowboy outfit at Jupiter’s Claim, with his gaze fixed ominously upward. I can vividly recall other people who seemed excited by this venture into new territory as well, on various social media platforms.
Seeing non-white bodies set against this sprawling painstakingly beautiful expanse of land already felt exciting and innovative. It certainly promised something I had never seen before. And that was without the promise of aliens!
Extraterrestrial lifeforms were the central allure of this film after trailers dropped, which got moviegoers into their seats. “It’s not scary, it’s about aliens” is what I told my own brother, in fact, as a means of coaxing him into attending a screening with me. And one could even make the argument that I didn’t quite lie.
Peele’s films now come with their own set of built-in expectations that members of the audience come armed with. There is a certain standard that people hold the director’s work to, not to forget about the conventions–even regarding genre itself– that viewers expect Peele’s work to remain loyal to. It does make sense when you pause to consider his groundbreaking debut feature which was Get Out. And Us followed rather closely behind, in its own right, still within the bounds of what most would deem Horror. It was certainly creepy and undeniably thought-provoking. And while Peele’s latest work definitely evokes some powerful and resounding questions, to say the least, NOPE still feels different from the rest of its brood.
Aliens certainly played a part in this piece, although not in the manner we’ve grown to expect our interplanetary counterparts to be introduced on-screen. It wasn’t exactly an invasion, for instance, nor was it a high-profile governmental reckoning between us and them. No, no epic military sky-bound battle either. Not even those little grey guys with the big eyes hiding in….except… Nevertheless, in his own right, Peele did find a way to stay true to his brand as an auteur. He managed to craft something new out of one of our most beloved cinematic nightmares. Which, by the way, is no small feat!
Granted, we’ve got to expect at least a few artful jumpscares for old time’s sake. It’s only fair. But really, NOPE is a creature feature at its core.
The film opens with its audience veering into an eerie, projected shot of a man on a horse. It is a classic clip that most of us have seen in some capacity before. As Emerald’s character explains a bit further into the film, this clip of the man riding his horse was the very first motion picture once upon a time, stemming from an assembly of photographs. That man, of course, being the (albeit fictional) core of the Haywood Horses estate as well as the great-great-great grandfather of our leading protagonists–sibling duo OJ and Emerald Haywood. Otis Jr. and Emerald are played by Oscar-winning/ Peele Alumni, Daniel Kaluuya, as well as the multi-talented and ever-vibrant Keke Palmer.
Having had been written in the midst of the pandemic, NOPE was an effort to keep cinema alive and exciting (much like the Haywood Horses endeavor). And if I dare say so myself, from a visual standpoint alone, the film truly is epic. Filmed on 65mm along with IMAX cameras, Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk) were in pursuit of total immersion on a grand scale. It was meant to be a spectacle, drawing bodies to screens like moths to the light after a long period of being locked away with our personal viewing parties. And being the first film within the Horror genre to utilize the IMAX format left NOPE with rather large shoes to fill…luckily, the piece was in nothing short of masterful hands.
As we were discussing, the heirs to the Haywood Horses estate are Hollywood royalty, to an extent, as per the legacy of their great-great-great grandfather Alistair E Haywood from the original horse film. Siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood, however, have fallen far from the circle of the Hollywood elite over the years on their dwindling ranch. As OJ says rather poignantly once the alien antics really begin to amp up, “…it was good, but the moment is passing. And we don’t own shit.” Come on, who can’t relate to that? And thus the incentive to stand their ground and fight for all that they’ve got left was born.
Even earlier on in the film, Kaluuya’s character poses a poignant question to his sister Emerald which molds the rest of the story in a rather significant way. He asks, “What’s a bad miracle? They got a word for that?”
In many ways, NOPE is a chilling exploration of that exact question, amongst others. After all, what is a bad miracle, or even a plain one for that matter? Miraculous doesn’t necessarily mean blessed so much as ‘against all odds’ or even just ‘unexpected’ and who reaps the reward of miracles that are bestowed upon our planet? Who pays the price of unexpected arrivals such as these?
There is no coincidence, then, in the quote that the film opens with from the Book of Nuham which reads: “And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a spectacle.”
This notion of spectacle comes into fruition on many fronts over the course of this film. I mean, what greater spectacle can there be than that which we’ve deemed miraculous?
This question becomes fleshed out even more so through the presence of Steven Yeun’s character in the film. Yeun plays a deeply haunted man named Jupe, who claimed his own rise to film in his youth through a bad miracle of his own. In fact, his greatest ‘blessing’ stems from the site of his own deepest trauma. We watch behind a veil of mystery of our own as a young Jupe cowers beneath a table on an abandoned set of his sitcom as a chimpanzee named Gordy runs rampant, to say the least. All the while, Jupe fixes his gaze on a lone tennis shoe on the ground, which stands miraculously upright on its heel as though suspended by a string. Thereby avoiding eye contact with the crazed chimp, Gordy, whilst waiting for the other shoe to drop (literally), Jupe survives the encounter and keeps the public’s collective gaze trained on him as he ages.
That’s the thing about spectacle, isn’t it? People just can’t seem to look away. But at what cost? Looking comes at a cost too; for the looker as well as the one who is being perceived. The real question, then, becomes who it falls on to pay this price. The UAP of this film– they aren’t called UFOs anymore, people– later named Jean Jacket, exemplifies the true peril of looking. Not to mention the inherent dangers of attempting to tame a creature that is wild. Strong spirits can only be broken, after all, and as we can see from the 2-hour and 10-minute runtime of NOPE, our beloved alien creature isn’t going anywhere without a fight.
The Haywood duo uses everything they’ve got in an effort to come out on top of this miracle. For even a bad miracle is a chance. Sure, chance itself can go either way, fickle beast that it is, but like all of our favorite Summer blockbuster monster movies of old, everyone’s got something worth fighting for.
Yeun mentioned in a roundtable interview with the cast of NOPE that, “…Sometimes it’s easier to be the projection everyone wants you to be than to resist.”
Each of the members of this cast of characters possess certain intrinsic patterns distinctive to who they’re meant to be. Their paths also curve as a result of these patterns to complement this masking and sense of performance, becoming cyclical. Each of them struggles to break through this inner reliance on convention and archetype. Yet at the end of the day, we can really feel this “deeply human quality” that they seek out in one another. Firstly, we’ve got OJ who is this silent muscle of sorts. He does what needs to be done in order to uphold what his father built for them whilst also bearing the trauma of having witnessed his father’s death. Talk about a bad miracle! (Money literally falls from the sky, and makes not a soul richer) Furthermore, who wouldn’t be struck silent, having seen the things that OJ has borne witness to? We even notice that OJ sleeps with the coin that killed his father, Otis Sr. (Keith Richardson), hanging on the wall over his bed. This cyclical nature of trauma blossoming from the public eye as well as just the trauma of spectacle and the act of looking itself really stands as emblematic in the context of OJ’s embodiment of the original man on the horse. At long last, this forgotten figure’s story is being told, and what a tale it is!
Palmer also truly shines as Emerald, the living charm of Haywood Horses. After all, when has hard work alone ever drawn a crowd? This film has so much literal space to make feel as though it has been thoroughly lived-in. Claimed, if you will. And Palmer’s performance along with the strength of OJ’s devotion to this land and his past has no problem filling this world with life. I was incredibly struck by the strength of the performances in this film. Brandon Perea as Angel, the heartbroken tech support guy we all know and avoid, was so perfect and familiar. Antlers (Michael Wincott) as the jaded cinematographer audiences love to hate was also very strong. I know for a fact that his “…flying purple people eater” recitation is going to stick with me for a long time.
Jordan Peele’s mastery of his craft, not to mention his truly inspiring sense of ambition when it comes to storytelling, was clearly on display in this film. Honestly, it was simply a pleasure to be immersed in such a beautifully composed, visceral world. NOPE is a MOVIE-movie and an adventure at its core. Sure, the spectacle can be dangerous, but with a soundscape and cinematography of this caliber, I’d say that it is well worth the risk.