The Terror of Spectacle in “Nope”

Written by Hayden Claborn, Entertainment Reviewer

“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.”

Nahum 3:6
Steven Yeun in "Nope"
Steven Yeun in “Nope”. Credit: Universal Pictures

This article contains spoilers for Nope (2022) 

OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) run a Hollywood horse ranch that has been in the business since the beginning of motion pictures. Their great-great-great-great grandfather was the black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 The Horse in Motion. In Nope, OJ has become depressed after the shocking death of his father Otis (Keith David) who was killed by a quarter falling from the sky and into his eye. Soon, he and his sister discover that a UFO is stalking the area. The Haywoods then begin a journey of trying to capture an image of the flying saucer. 

In a clever twist, the UFO isn’t actually a vehicle but is an alien of unknown origin; we’re never told where it comes from. Similar to Steven Speilberg’s Jaws, the “antagonist” is just a wild animal who is only acting on instinct. 

Jordan Peele’s Nope comes at a time when distrust of the United States government is at an all-time high, and embedded in the concept of the UFO is a distrust of the powers that be. The crux of the mythos isn’t so much that “aliens exist” but more “aliens exist and the government is trying to hide them from us.” Like with all great genre stories, the central figure of Nope represents much more than an object of fright. 

The quote at the beginning of the film clues us in that this is a tale of spectacle (if you want to know more about the context of the quote, I recommend reading “Why ‘Nope’ spotlights Jewish prophets and mitzvahs” by PJ Grisar), and the UFO is a looming metaphor for said spectacle. 

The theme of spectacle starts with a chimp named Gordy, motion captured by Terry Notary. In 1998 on the set of the fictional TV Show Gordy’s Home, the titular animal is set off by the pop of balloons and wreaks bloody havoc, ending with him getting shot by someone off camera. Decades later, one of the surviving actors, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), is running a western-themed amusement park in Agua Dulce, California and is profiting off of the tragedy; he maintains a small museum filled with Gordy’s Home memorabilia. Jupe off-handedly mentions that the incident has a raving fan base, alluding to the way our society views tragedy and trauma as something to consume rather than process.

Jupe, in many ways, is an antagonist; his encounter with Gordy has given him a God complex. He believes that he can tame the alien beast. The result is the film’s most terrifying sequence: it turns out that Jupe has been feeding the Alien  (later referred to as Jean Jacket) horses and decides to use the creature as a means of entertainment. At a family and friends event, Jean Jacket devours Jupe and forty other people, conveying the consequences of his hubris and drive for spectacle. We get glimpses inside Jean Jacket as the attendees cry and scream as they are eaten. A fascinating detail is that the insides of the creature almost resemble an attraction you see at a fair, making the viewer question how foreign Jean Jacket is.

Jupe acts as a foil to all the other characters in Nope, most importantly OJ. Both work in the business of using animals as a form of entertainment, but OJ treats his trade with more reverence. He never tries to control the horses and in turn his occupation leads him to realize the way to survive Jean Jacket is to not look up. To not give it attention. 

In the end, Jean Jacket’s true form is revealed, resembling a biblical angel featuring a lens-like opening. After doing an Akira slide, Emerald kills Jean Jacket by having it eat a giant humanoid float and takes a picture of it. In the final two shots, we get a close-up of Emerald as her face contorts with joy as reporters pile up behind her and a hero shot of OJ sitting on a horse amidst smoke. Instead of being focused on the press, Emerald is happy that her brother is still alive. 

Jordan Peele is a modern-day Rod Sterling: giving us genre stories that are a view into the American psyche. As his career goes on, he’s continually upping his game and Nope is his most ambitious and possibly best work to date. 

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