(SPOILERS) Jordan Peele’s movies may ultimately fail to deliver, but he’s nevertheless a persuasively proficient, talented moviemaker, an expert in scene setting and pacing, mood and atmosphere. He also tends to mine intriguing territory conceptually. Indeed, his last movie Us was ALL ideas, replete not so much with soft disclosure as a resounding dump of the hard stuff that went largely unnoticed. Probably because – going back to the ultimately-failing-to-deliver part – as a whole, effective movie, it just wasn’t much cop. Nope is more successful in that regard, but still only really half successful. Once Peele reveals the contents of his box of tricks, all he has left is that proficient filmmaking technique, and it isn’t really enough.
So are each of Peele’s movies tackling disclosure in some shape or form? Is Get Out less about racism than soul scalping? Us is so much about cloning in DUMBs, it straight-up tells us. And Nope? Is it actually about gigantic predatory hoover bags disguising themselves as clouds, or is that a way of saying what we think – or are disinformed – is the case about UFOs isn’t the case, or perhaps isn’t the case in the way we were told to think is the case? Armond White believes the movie’s all about Hollywood, and the Nahum quote is invoking the same, and, by necessity – because all Peele’s movie’s will be, by necessity, refracted through that self-invoked prism – race.
I will cast abominable filth at you,
Make you vile,
And make you a spectacle.
Nahum 3: 6
Peele forwards this side with the Hollywood heritage motif, whereby the Haywood clan (Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ, Keke Palmer’s Em/Emerald, and formerly Keith David’s Otis Sr) claim the rider of the horse seen in the first motion picture (Animal Locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge) was their ancestor. We see them beleaguered by the current state of the industry, and we also see former child star Ricky/Jupe (Steven Yeun), still suffering PTSD from a calamitous chimp frenzy on the set of ’90s sitcom Gordy’s Home. There’s good reason to come away with the feeling Peele’s movie is infused with such commentary, then, particularly since Jupe is the direct recipient of the fallout from making flying hoover bag manta ray an entertainment (it in turn casts filth it hasn’t consumed upon the ground beneath, and makes its victims pretty much vile bodies).
I can’t say anything really vitalised, in terms of thematic content, leapt out at me with regard to Nope, however, since its back half is pretty much a standard monster movie. Yes, the gang are trying to film the creature to make money (entertainment again), and one of their number (the always incredibly entertaining – especially as here, when he’s quoting Purple People Eater in a humorous/haunting rasp – Michael Wincott) willingly dies for his art in order to get the ultimate shot. The gist of White’s review is that he’s got nothing on Nope beyond the surface (Peele’s afrofuturism) because Peele himself has got nothing. But White isn’t going to countenance what else might be going on here because, like Get Out and Us, it appears to be announcing itself as the one thing by simple virtue of being Peele as emblematic race commentator.
OJ: I don’t think it eats you if you don’t look in its eyes.
Perhaps Nope is about Hollywood (and race). Perhaps it’s about the control of, rather than by, Hollywood, and we should take the deadly hoover bag a little more sinisterly (albeit, that doesn’t mean it applies purely to Hollywood, just most obviously so). It’s there, out of sight, preying on the unsuspecting. You’ll be okay if you don’t look it in the eyes: if you don’t watch movies and TV, you won’t be corrupted by Hollywood, made vile.
There’s an animal thing here too, of course, since OJ’s insights come from his being a horse wrangler. To the hoover bag, we’re just animals (foodstuff, hence the entirely unnerving digestive track sequence). It’s an apex predator, I suppose, to use Jurassic World speak. Keke wears a Jesus Lizard t-shirt (not such an apex predator, or a Vril, but a lizard nevertheless). Nope’s most mesmerising and unnerving sequence features young Ricky in a flashback to the Gordy’s Home massacre, with a berserk and bloody chimp pummelling any of the cast he can get hold of. Antlers (Wincott) watches wildlife footage of a lion vs boa constrictor, predator vs predator. What’s the message? Animals are dangerous? They can’t be tamed, and you’d be a fool to try? None of it is exactly scintillating, as it goes, but always expertly staged and shot by Peele and Nolan DP Hoye van Hoytema; it’s a very easy film to watch, even when its misfiring, because it carries with it the pleasure of sure craftsmanship.
It isn’t necessarily that Nope turns into a flying monster movie that’s a problem; it’s that it offers the promise of something more, to satisfy the early mystery, so the realisation of “Oh, it’s that” can’t help but be something of a let-down, however serviceably the “that” delivers. It’s your Shyamalan problem, really, where your construction is front loaded with the knowledge a reveal will come along, and the pleasure is invariably from not knowing than the knowing.
Of course, Shyamalan’s third (post-success) movie was an alien picture, one that received considerably more audience response than this. Nope is actually much closer to Tremors than Signs; there’s even a similar conversation about the nature of the threat posed, along with the creature(s) being entangled with human vileness or unpleasantness (barbed wire – it would appear the hoover bag – Jean Jacket – we see later is supposed to have been ripped by this, hence looking different later). The main difference is that Tremors is a hoot, full of characters having fun, and having fun with the creature too. Nope has a ready sense of humour, but it’s very serious about its construction in that Shyamalan way.
Angel: It’s UAPs now.
OJ: Why‘d they change the name?
Angel: Exactly. It’s cos they want to keep us in the dark.
I half wondered if the latter stages look of the creature was supposed to remind us of a weather balloon (you know, Roswell). Angel (Brandon Perea) is a ready source of lore (including the nugget that apparently “the concept of extra-terrestrial animals in the sky is not a new thing”). He provides the necessary exposition with regard to the UFO concept Peele is flirting with, when he advises “the little guys with the big eyes”:
Angel: Either they’re intergalactic travellers looking for peace. Or they futuristic humans coming back in time to stop us destroying each other. Or, they’re fucking world killers! Planetary destroyers… waiting for the perfect time to beam us up and shove metal probes in our fucking asses!
I’d suggest the second is the salient sentence in his conjecture (albeit, the game plan has been less to stop us destroying each other than promote the transhumanist gospel). What’s noticeable about Nope is that it features “aliens” but no interstellar travel, while presenting the real monster as an alien casually drops the explanation that Greys are (will be) us into the movie unseen. The “saucers aren’t what you think they are” point is clearly expressly intentional, even if that’s just Peele coming up with a hook. Audiences weren’t much interested, though. I think because, even though the visual concept is original/absurd, it doesn’t throw any real curveballs, something even Us, for all that it was a crashing disappointment, manages to do.
Peele gives us some great moments, though, like the realisation of the stationary cloud, and the aforementioned hoover bag’s insides (the suffering calls that can be heard as the creature is overhead are especially queasy making). Then there’s the TMZ reporter on his electric bike. And the raining innards (including blood).
It might have been more fun had the gang expressly decided they were going to take the bag down, rather than it being a lucky result from Em getting it to eat a balloon. Of the cast, it’s outrageous to cast David and give him only one (well, two) scenes. Yeun is good with the pained performative bravado. Kaluuya is almost too layered for this kind of role, as he lends an impression there’s more to it than there is. Bill Murray canceller – and entire movie productions for that matter – Palmer convincingly plays someone who’s incredibly annoying, which is well and good, I guess. I’m trying to recall what else I’ve seen her in (Hustlers). As I noted of Lightyear, if you want a summer 2022 hit, don’t cast Keke in it.
Angel: Ancient Aliens, History Channel. Watch that shit.
At this point then, Peele comes burdened by the weight of expectations, he’s that guy, the one who offer the fantastic, the race commentary, and some kind of Twilight Zone-esque twist; look what pigeonholing did for M Night. Most saliently, not getting $70m movie budgets to play with any longer. But Nope is still one of the more interesting movies I’ve seen this year. Anyone trying to do something different is to be commended, and you don’t feel entirely deluged with by messaging in Nope either (which goes back to the salient point: what is Peele saying here, because you can bet he’s saying something).