While it’s typical to wonder what you’re in for with a Jordan Peele horror, NOPE is a more traditional experience from the horror-mystery director. Yet, it somehow still makes for the puzzling watch leading to open-ended discussion that the comedian-turned-filmmaker has become known for.
This sci-fi monster romp identifies the threat early on, without wasting much time marveling at it or working to explain it. The problem, though mysterious, is apparent and the characters quickly leap into solution mode, making for an adventure thrill ride without much in the way of a grand revelation or thematic reveal at its nonplussing end. Spielberg fans, think Jaws meets Super 8.
Peele’s more straightforward sci-fi creature feature finds Keke Palmer giving a standout performance as Emerald Haywood, an aspiring Hollywood actress, singer, model, producer, motorcyclist, craft services chef, you name it whose overwhelmingly outgoing nature makes her a bit of a professional liability. Reluctantly on-hand to help her introverted brother Otis “O.J.” Jr. [Daniel Kaluuya] take over the family show horse-training business after their father [Keith David] passes from a freak accident (or was it?) on the family ranch, Emerald hatches a plan to prove the unbelievable when an otherworldly threat begins stalking the area.
In the periphery is Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star and current wild-west theme park owner seeking to capitalize on both his own declining profile in the entertainment industry and the new mystery from the skies. His ambition is on both ends is informed by a traumatic turning-point moment in his childhood that provides an interesting, yet ultimately fruitless side-plot in the film’s action.
As is a typical problem in Hollywood, the film’s trailer gives away much of what’s at play here, long before you cross the theater’s threshold. Whereas audiences have been trained to expect more than meets the eye with a Peele flick, you’ll have to squint hard to find a bigger picture in this interplanetary rodeo.
But that’s not to say there isn’t some nuance here. Though metaphor is less apparent in this wild-western action than in Peele’s 2017 horror classic Get Out, allegorical themes dealing with modern surveillance, the constant spectacle of social media and the entertainment industry, man’s futile attempts at controlling nature, and the urge to catch everything on camera were each running throughlines.
In the end, however, much of the overall “point” audiences are apt to search for remains open to the viewer’s interpretation, a fact which is sure to leave some viewers dissatisfied once the film’s orange-tinted credits begin to roll. But starting with 2019’s Us and continuing here, Peele has clearly stamped himself as a purveyor of mystery and ambiguity. Much like its predecessor, NOPE is not a film you can simply let wash over you. A decent chunk of the work lies with the viewer to fill in narrative gaps. You’ll be left locked in discussion with your friends and yourself about what it all means.
I personally drew parallels between the characters’ burden of proof and plight to catch “the impossible shot” and our current need-based trend of catching everyone from Karens, to cops, to costumed characters in the act of maliciously racialized actions on our phones to be fully believed and action to take place. But there’s a strong chance you’ll walk away with something else altogether.
But the overall message likely lies in the obscure Bible scripture that opens the film: Nahum 3:6. “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”
Just as the force that stalks the valley the Haywood family occupies is a spectacle for them, they are a spectacle for it; constantly watching, evaluating, and looking to consume. The Haywoods and their team of assistants, local electronics clerk and AV expert Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and famed Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), are locked in a cat and mouse game of watching it while it’s not watching back, and vice-versa. But when you meet its gaze head-on, you are primed to be swallowed whole and digested into oblivion. But what does it all mean?
That’s for you to decide.