Editor’s Note: The following includes spoilers for the film. Nope
A new movie from Jordan Pele has been released, and with it comes the inevitable flood of thought pieces. Like with get out and We before that, Nope received critical acclaim, box office success and feverish social media analysis; it’s a big cannonball straight into the pool of The Discourse. People were preparing their heavyweight renditions of the film’s themes – spectacle, Hollywood, wild animals, trauma, capitalism, etc. – and presented them as if they were professors in a symposium. They compared and contrasted it with the franchise movies that dominate the modern big-budget landscape. They argued over the purpose of the killer chimpanzee flashbacks. they roasted Logan Paul for not liking it, and roasted the guy who made that “let people enjoy things” comic for liking it too much. Even the first-weekend box office numbers — a solid but not earth-shattering $44 million — were the subject of some debate over whether that could be considered an underperformance. In a way, it reinforced Nopethe theme of the show: it was seen, but above all, we talked about it.
However, there’s a real danger of missing the forest for the trees – or the desert for the wacky inflatable men waving their arms around, so to speak. Cultural analytics is nothing new, but the internet has democratized it (and encouraged it in the form of clicks and social media engagement) more than ever: not only can anyone do it, but everyone feels the need to do it. Even the simplest films will have their messages analyzed, their themes examined, and their endings explained, all while being placed in a larger cultural context. And when it comes to films like Jordan Peele’s, which combine popularity with genuine depth, it’s time to really dig deep: hour-long video essays, college lectures, and intense speculation about the meaning of an orange Scorpio King hoodie.
This is not to say that media analysis is bad or useless. On the one hand, that would be rich coming from someone trying to make a career out of media analysis. On the other hand, to reject analysis altogether – to take everything at face value, to scoff at subtext and symbolism, to refuse to believe that there could even be a subconscious reason why the curtains of a short story are blue – leads to an inquisitive, unimaginative audience asking for a spoon-feeding. The problem arises when people laser-focus on themes and subtexts to the exclusion of everything else, treating a work of art as a puzzle box to be solved rather than enjoyed – or worse, the treating it like a carrying case for its message, as if a film is nothing more than an overly complicated telegram.
All this to say that being obsessed with the meaning of a film like Nope is to do so, and Peele, a disservice. It is true that his films function as social commentaries and are often quite symbolic – in get out, for example, meaning can be read in everything from deer horns to the color of a straw. But there are two things Peele has that legions of post-get out imitators are lacking. He’s a master of his craft, with an eye for striking imagery and an intuitive sense of how to pace scenes for maximum suspense. And, just as importantly, he has a level of geeky, enthusiastic cinephile to rival Quentin Tarantino. The genre elements of his movies aren’t just a compulsory spoonful of sugar to help knock the drug off: Jordan Peele makes movies because he love moviesnot because a film would attract more attention than a doctoral thesis. Nope is thematically rich, like all his films, but above all it is a celebration of classic blockbuster cinema.
The central characters of Nope all exist on the fringes of Hollywood in one way or another. The Haywood siblings, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), are animal trainers, specifically horse trainers. With the decline of the Western and the advent of CGI, their way of life is threatened even before the mysterious death of their father (keith david), and their impending financial difficulties are what motivate them to get “the Oprah shot” of the UFO (or so it seems) they discover stalking the skies above their ranch. Angel (Brandon Perea) supplied the cameras as an employee of Fry’s Electronics, a joint retail chain in Southern California before closing in 2021. Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a gravelly-voiced cinematographer with a surprisingly radiant name, risks his own obsolescence due to his perfectionism and fondness for analog gear. Even the biggest name, former child star and current traumatized theme park entrepreneur Ricky “Skirt” Park (steven yeun), turns out to be a desperate peddler who clings to relevance, which ends up making things worse for everyone.
That these characters function as commentaries on Hollywood cruelty is well documented, but less attention has been paid to the obvious affection Peele has for them. In his hands, and in the hands of the actors he cast, these people are characters, not just symbols. OJ’s interactions with the horses feel natural and lived-in, thanks to Kaluuya’s deft and understated performance; Thanks to OJ’s careful demeanor and innate understanding of animal psychology, what appears to be a simple skill is actually a quiet, understated mastery. Antlers Holst, with its jarring intensity and fixation on violent wild animal sequences, is undoubtedly quirky, but it’s tacitly acknowledged that many filmmakers are like that. (Even the colorful name looks real, considering the fact that Nopethe director of photography is appointed Hoyte van Hoytema.) And there’s even the feeling that Peele admires Jupe’s attempts to make lemonade from lemons; after all, most former child stars would have opened a Cameo account and called it a day.
There’s a strain of nostalgia running through Nope, seldom commented on but still present: the nostalgia for a stranger, riskier, more ambitious Hollywood, which was never the utopia that some claimed to be but nonetheless crackling with vitality and creativity. It wasn’t perfect, but wonderful things could happen: a ramshackle space opera called star wars could become a cultural institution, or a janky robot shark could be hunted down for some chilling suspense. If it was 2022 instead of the 70s, george lucas would have been poached by Marvel fresh out of american graffitiand the shark in Jaws would be a computer-generated creation by overworked and underpaid VFX teams. There are as many brilliant craftsmen in Hollywood today as there were then, but the executives at the time had yet to figure out how to replace them: the Haywoods would then have prospered. Peele pays homage to these people by making underrated “handcrafted” elements of Nope some of the best parts. There’s van Hoytema’s spacious cinematography, bursting with desert color and capturing the quiet menace of the open sky; there’s the UFO creature design, which looks exactly as you’d expect from the outside but is terrifying on the inside; and there’s the superlative sound design, weird but possessing visceral impact. At no point is anyone satisfied with “good enough”.
What’s most satisfying is that it’s all below the surface, enhancing the experience but not defining it. The most common comparison for Nope is Jaws, the film that more or less defined the summer blockbuster as we know it. There are a lot of obvious things they have in common. The shark and the UFO (which is actually an alien itself) are predators, often seen only in glimpses, whose absence is as frightening as their presence. Both films focus on a ragtag team trying to come to terms with the monster one way or another, whether to kill it, film it, or both. Both films feature crowds of people in a state of abject terror. And both have a mean side, unafraid to play tricks on the public or let horrible things happen to kids.
There is a lot to read Jaws, thus: it can be seen as a conflict with nature, an exploration of masculinity, a post-Watergate history of political mistrust, or even a look at science versus spiritualism. But at its core, it’s a heart-pounding suspense thriller about a big, bad shark, and that’s all it needs. In Nopeas well as the rest of his filmography, Jordan Peele shows that he belongs to this line of ambitious successful visionaries.