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NOPE (2022) By Jordan Peele - Movie Review

NOPE (2022) By Jordan Peele - Movie Review

NOPE (2022) Director: Jordan Peele Writer: Jordan Peele Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun, Wrenn Schmidt, Keith David, Devon Graye, Terry NotarySophia CotoJacob Kim, Andrew Patrick Ralston Run Time: 130min Rated: 14A (Canada) R (MPAA) for language throughout and some violence/bloody images.

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains spoilers) 

A Spectacle Staring Back

A mysterious Unidentified Aerial Phenomena/UFO terrorizes two neighbouring California ranches tempting the owners to try capitalizing on their unnerving experiences.

One ranch, run by Haywood brother and sister Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), supplies horses for movies, television, and commercials. Following the tragic and inexplicable death of their horse-trainer father Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) their company, Haywood Hollywood Horses, struggles to make ends meet due to the siblings’ competing personal priorities.

The neighbouring ranch features Jupiter’s Claim a kitschy western-themed amusement park run by Ricky 'Jupe' Park (Steven Yeun) a former child star of the film Kid Sheriff upon which the park is based. Like the Haywood family Jupe also has a traumatic event in his past albeit from earlier in his life. While working on Gordy’s Home, a 1990s TV sitcom about a space program chimpanzee living with a family, a tragedy abruptly brings the series to a halt in its second season when Gordy the Chimpanzee violently attacks his co-stars on set during a birthday party scene. Jupe is the only one who comes out of the attack physically unharmed; he is however traumatized by the event.

Facing hard times and fading personal glory in nearby Hollywood these floundering entrepreneurs are so hungry for fame and fortune that they willfully ignore the dangerous nature of the mysterious UAP/UFO lurking in the sky above. Even if they successfully manipulate their situation, miraculously revive their careers or get out of their financial struggles they fail to consider the personal cost and how it would be accomplished on the back of a “bad miracle.” As a result, the film deals with a kind of tabloid spirit of exploitation that drives fame seekers to step over dead bodies to reach their personal goals.

Vocational responsibility and love for his deceased father seem the motivation for Otis Jr. (nicknamed OJ) to keep the family ranch from folding but this could also just be pride and stubbornness. Saving the family ranch is of course one of many popular themes and character motivations from past Hollywood Westerns that Peele makes use of in NOPE.  

With NOPE writer/director Jordan Peele delivers a tension-filled thriller with homages to Hollywood directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Joel & Ethan Coen, and M. Night Shyamalan. NOPE is often billed as a horror film and while it has elements of horror and suspense it could also slide into the category of a modern western sci-fi film. Needless to say there is a lot going on and drawing from a Hollywood tradition of “creature features” providing social commentary and being about more than giant ants, flying saucers and alien pod-people, Peele delivers a film where the UAP/UFO is more than a hungry “one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater”

The first hint to this approach is Peele’s inclusion of a Bible verse in the first seconds of the film: “I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle” (Nahum 3:6). This dire warning to the people of Nineveh announced their doom and a judgment for their sins. Peele’s use of the verse raises a lot of questions: Who is being judged and by whom? Is the monstrous UAP/UFO the instrument of judgement? Is Hollywood being judged, or is it the audience that needs to be warned of its ways? Could it be all of these things at once? Is Peele making the “I” in the quote to be about him as a writer/director with “you” being the audience? Is he making a “spectacle” for the audience or is he making the audience into the “spectacle?” Or are the exploited Hollywood actors and filmmakers the ones who are made vile having abominable filth cast at them for the sake of creating a spectacle for the viewer?  The people of Nineveh from the Bible had repented and embraced the way of God in the time of Jonah but only a few generations later had turned away doubling down on their wickedness. Is Peele warning Hollywood, its actors and filmmakers and audiences to turn from their evil ways before they meet their ultimate judgment and doom? The “blink and you miss it” Bible verse thrown at audiences before they have a chance to figure out what’s going on is certainly worth considering when thinking about what the film might mean. Another biblical allusion is that the UAP/UFO is largely concealed in a cloud and when attacking creates a pillar of cloud reaching down to the earth like a twister which is both dissimilar and evocative of the Theophanies of the Book of Exodus where God both judges Egypt while saving Israel (Exodus 13) and later when at Mount Sinai Moses and the children of Israel are given the Ten Commandments by which sin is judged (Exodus 19:16–25; 20:2–17).    

Why NOPE seems focused on the nature of exploitation in Hollywood is likewise revealed early in the film when viewers see Sallie Gardner at a Gallop (1878) or The Horse in Motion flashed upon the screen. This short “film” from the early days of filmmaking is an animated series of photographs by Eadweard Muybridge of a black jockey riding a horse. The Haywood Hollywood Horses family claims the rider as their great, great, great grandfather. Emerald points out to the crew on the set of a TV commercial that no one really remembers the name of the rider even though people know who Muybridge is. It is interesting that historians are more certain of the horse’s name than they are the rider’s. Peele clearly thinks this is interesting too as he weaves half-remembered and short-lived TV sitcoms, fading child actors, and often unknown behind- the-scenes individuals like animal wranglers into the plot even including a cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), whose whole job is performed behind camera. Holst, the camera operator on the TV commercial, who admits he doesn’t know the name of the rider from the historic short film, eventually joins the Haywood siblings in their scheme ultimately using an old-fashioned pre-electric hand-cranked camera rig to capture footage of a black rider, OJ, on horseback as he coaxes the UAP/UFO out of the clouds for the money shot, or as Emerald puts it the “Oprah shot.”

TV talk shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show often trafficked in “tragedy for profit” and in retrospect much of their content could be considered exploitative. Emerald’s mention of Oprah may trigger a real-life memory for viewers. In 2009 Oprah interviewed Charla Nash who tragically had her face ripped off by her friend’s 200 pound chimpanzee, Travis, who was trained to be a commercial animal actor. In that interview Nash was shown with a hat and veil similar to the one worn by Jupe's Gordy’s Home co-star Mary Jo Elliott (Sophia Coto) to cover her disfigured face. Once it has become obvious to the Haywood siblings that the UAP/UFO is consuming unsuspecting people and that Jupe was feeding it horses in an attempt to make it into a kind of amusement park attraction, cinematographer Holst references another real-life animal attack when Roy, of Siegfried and Roy, was mauled by their a seven-year-old white tiger named Mantacore severing his spine during the duo’s live show in Las Vegas. October 3, 2003, the day of the attack, also happened to be Roy's birthday another odd link with the film as the fictional Gordy’s Home incident happen while filming a birthday episode. Siegfried and Roy had a long career featuring exotic animals in their act and even with their experience met with tragedy. Over and over again Peele weaves half-remembered bits and pieces of real life into his fictional story seeking to get under his audience’s skin and tap into subconscious genuine fears of sudden horror visited on people who think they have everything under control. Holst’s Siegfried and Roy comment is an example of how Peele simultaneously creates suspense while providing commentary on the nature of the entertainment industry.  

The character of Holst is full of wisdom and advice which sadly he fails to apply to himself. At one point, as their scheme starts taking shape, he warns the Haywood siblings “This dream you're chasing... where you end up at the top of the mountain... it's the one you never wake up from.” This again is a prophetic word of warning for those seeking fame and fortune both on and off screen: It sort of falls into the category of, “be careful what you wish for you might just get it.” Peele, who is known for being the writer/director of the Oscar award-winning film Get Out (2017) and for his creepy second film Us (2019), originally came to prominence as a sketch comedian on MADtv (2003-2008 TV series). His success and critical acclaim for these suspense, thriller, and horror films has currently brought him to the “top of the mountain” in Hollywood. Is Peele using Holst’s words as a warning to himself as a writer, director and actor? NOPE is a film filled to the brim with questions and mysteries.     

OJ and Emerald also end up enlisting the services of Fry's Electronics store employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea). At first Torres, who is a conspiracy theorist and often the source of comedic relief, insinuates himself into their situation out of curiosity about the Haywood’s need for surveillance at their ranch but quickly becomes an integral part of their team. After being booked for the part of Torres but before being given the script, Peele assigned a list of films for actor Brandon Perea to watch. The list is instructive in understanding what Peele was thinking while writing NOPE. It included Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), Joel & Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (2007) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Interestingly, early in Kubrick's 2001 there’s a scene with apes and a black Monolith which shares —apart from their size—similar physical dimensions to the upturned shoe at the beginning of NOPE. In Kubrick's film it is part of a catalyst moment where the apes perpetrate violence on each other signalling a leap in “evolution.” Is Peele making a connection with that moment? In NOPE the upended shoe is part of a catalyst moment for Jupe who is fixated on it during Gordy’s attack and he later has it similarly displayed amongst memorabilia from the set of Gordy’s Home tucked away behind closed door next to his office at the Jupiter’s Claim ranch. In the end, for the character of Jupe, that moment is the catalyst for him looking at tragedy as opportunity and advancement, as something to be milked for all it’s worth, which is the same thing he’s doing with his floundering amusement park— milking a past project for whatever can be gained.

While Jupe witnessed Gordy’s attack the public never saw the footage. While it was tragically real to him and to his co-star Mary Jo Elliott, for viewers of Gordy’s Home the true reality of the event was ultimately lost on them. This notion that a spectacle is not fully real unless it is caught on camera and documented—no matter how vile and filthy or tragic and horrifying—drives the last half of NOPE. Peele plays with this desire in the viewer’s heart and interestingly when it comes to the UAP/UFO he eventually shows everything and by the end of the film he provides the “Oprah shot” and more. The audience ends up seeing spectacular things held back in the initial trailers for the film. On the other hand, the audience doesn’t see the grizzly details of the chimpanzee attack which might even be worse because the mind often fills in the blanks of what it can’t see with the eye.

It’s also important to note that Jupe, speaking to an unprepared crowd of amusement park guests, refers to the UAP/UFO as “the viewers.” The idea of the gaze of the viewer being an act of violence sucking up and consuming all that returns its gaze appears very interesting to Peele. Think of phrases Hollywood uses to sell blockbuster spectacles like, “A feast for the eyes.” This idea of looking at something as an act of consumption might make more sense connected to Hollywood’s fixation on young fresh faces or in offerings produced by the porn industry living in the shadow of Hollywood where audiences are enticed to eat up everything they see regardless of how vile it might be or the degree to which the people on screen are willing participants.

There can be a real darkness to “consuming” media and a truth to the adage “you are what you eat.” This why Christian viewers, even within the bounds of their Christian freedom (1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 8:1-13; 10:23-33), should test this daily and ask themselves what they are willing to watch and what they choose not to consume with their eyes. While it’s rather easy for Christians to identify pornography as something to avoid, it might be harder to recognize home and gardening shows or doomscrolling through social media as temptations to the sin of coveting. Many Christians are trained to be wary of lust and violence in film but with NOPE Peele is inviting viewers, Christian and otherwise, to reconsider the nature of looking, what it means to be a viewer and how it impacts the one who watches the spectacle, how people can be exploited in the same fashion as animals, and how the audience itself can be exploited for profit. NOPE is an embodiment of Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning from Beyond Good and Evil, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”[2]

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese. Check out our Movie Review Index!

[1] Gordon Douglas' Them! (1954), Fred F. Sears' Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
[2] Epigrams and entr’actes 146, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, Cambridge University Press 2002, page 105.