This post originally appeared in my horror newsletter, Deep Cuts.
It’s always been part of human nature to be bound to the untypical. We’re beholden to things even just a little out of place. And endlessly subjected to life’s repeating patterns, we often seek the anomalies. We desire the thrill of escaping mundaneness and gazing beyond the ordinary.
Long before pictures could move, a kind of compulsion to spectacle has always predicated our lives. Our inability to look away from things that feed this obsession is the punchline in Jordan Peele’s Nope, a deftly woven alien invasion dark comedy where the characters’ impulse isn’t to run from the imminent extraterrestrial threat but to scamper towards it and capture the impossible. Or as the film likes to call it: the Oprah shot.
Nope picks up with estranged siblings, OJ (Daniel Kaluya) and Em (Keke Palmer), who struggle to keep their horse-wrangling business running. After running out of good prospects, they decide they would casually film a seemingly dormant space saucer hovering above their farm amidst the clouds. To aid them in this mission, they enlist the help of a bored store clerk named Angel (Brandon Perea) and a disillusioned cinematographer named Holst (Michael Wincott).
Nope takes time to build on its story. Though not as dense as Peele’s previous outing, Us, it feels exponentially conceptual. Admittedly, the film has a lot on its mind — readings vary from a metatextual parable about filmmaking, an elliptical story about grief, to a socially charged drama about correcting historical erasures — but the film ultimately gets clear in perspective and its predilections.
At its core, Nope is about spectacle. Peele said as much. It is about “our addiction to spectacle, and the insidious nature of attention.” This critique presents this fixation as a perceptible symptom of a now post-truth world, where every image can be manipulated and every video deep-faked. Seeing no longer equates to belief. Evidence is no longer the prerequisite. It has to be an experience — a spectacle, for one is “not (just) a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” Spectacle is, according to French philosopher Guy Debord, “the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity.”
This obsession ties up neatly with The Other, a theme that recurs in Peele’s small but already accomplished filmography. Brushed on his razer-sharp commentary on fake allyship in Get Out and made integral to his fascinating perspective on the American Dream in Us, here, the idea casts The Other as often-exploited subjects in spectacles, be that a defunct sitcom or an unnerving otherworldly freakshow.
Steven Yeun’s character, Jupe — a child actor-turned-roadside attraction entrepreneur — is at the center of this. Jupe is emblematic of a sick cycle of exploitation; being the only Asian actor in his sitcom, cast only by virtue of tokenism, he perpetuates the exploitative nature of spectacles by him franchising and profiteering off of something he doesn’t fully understand. This adds texture to a bloody encounter he had with his co-star primate, Gordy, a castmate whose inclusion, like his, is weighed against their otherness.
Jordan Peele’s Nope is conceptually his best film. Like his principal characters, Peele assigned himself an ambitious task: Is it still possible to make a spectacle about the hold that spectacles have over us (without it devolving into something less than)? The answer, Peele decides, is in his title. But it’s well worth a damn try.