As we’ve come to expect from Jordan Peele flicks, NOPE quickly established itself as a black-led horror film with an opaque premise and a comically vague title. But the more we learned about this movie, the more it seemed to buck the traditions previously established in Get Out and Us. To start with, the heavy reliance on UFO imagery suggested that the title might be an acronym for Not Of Planet Earth (which is why I’m keeping the title capitalized). For another thing, while Peele’s earlier films have worked as allegories for systemic racism and racial trauma, it wasn’t entirely clear where that theme was going to fit with the premise of two siblings out hunting for UFOs.
Now that the film is out, I can confirm that Peele is bucking yet another of his established trends in that this isn’t really a slasher horror. Rather, it’s only technically a horror film in the same way that Jaws is technically a horror film. In point of fact, the movie really is just like Jaws with a UFO, which might actually be scarier. After all, the characters in Jaws only had to stay out of the water to be safe — that’s not really an option with a UFO. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We lay our scene in a desert ranch somewhere just outside LA. This is the Haywood Hollywood Horse ranch, the only black-owned horse ranch in Hollywood. In fact, this horse ranch is owned by the direct descendants of the black horse rider featured in Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion”, one of the earliest prototypes of cinema as we know it.
(Side note: As the characters themselves point out, every film student knows about Muybridge’s contributions to the arts and sciences of motion pictures, yet nobody knows anything about the first actor/stuntman/animal trainer in film history. In actuality, the identity of this horse rider has been completely lost to history. We know the horse was owned and the film strip commissioned by California Governor Leland Stanford, we know the horse in question was named “Sallie Gardner”, and there is some highly inconclusive speculation that the rider may have been farm stock manager Gilbert Domm, but that’s about it.)
Anyway, the film opens with the highly unusual death of ranch owner/manager Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), who somehow got a nickel lodged in his brain. It’s perhaps worth noting that everything electrical shorted out just before the accident happened, the entire vicinity was pelted with metallic objects at the time, and nobody could come up with any better explanation than a damaged prop plane that must have been passing overhead.
(Side note: I’m open to the potential symbolism of a black man getting killed by a coin that bears the image of noted slaver/rapist Thomas Jefferson, but that’s probably just coincidence.)
Cut to six months later. Otis’ son (Otis Jr., typically just “OJ”, played by Daniel Kaluuya) is trying his hardest to keep the ranch going, but he’s still clearly grieving his father’s inexplicable death and he’s had to sell a number of his dad’s old horses to make ends meet. What’s worse, OJ’s sister (Emerald, typically called “Em”, played by Keke Palmer) arrives to pitch in, but she’s more interested in launching her own career as an actor/writer/producer/director/skateboarder/motorcyclist/singer/whatever. For her, the family horse ranch is simply a means of networking and getting her brand out there, while OJ is much more committed to the ranch and the horses. It certainly doesn’t help that OJ is sullen and withdrawn while Em seems oddly chipper and upbeat for someone whose father just up and freaking died for no reason.
The bottom line is that the ranch is on the verge of bankruptcy when OJ and Em spot a passing UFO. Thus the both of them invest the last of what money they have in trying to get crystal clear incontrovertible proof of extraterrestrial aircraft. Hilarity ensues and people end up dead.
At this point, you may be wondering what’s the greater sociopolitical point of this Jordan Peele flick. Well… so far as I can tell, there really isn’t one.
Easily the most prominent theme concerns the relationship between humans and animals. (Getting back to the Jaws comparison.) This is obvious in that our main characters are horse trainers. But we also have Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), owner and manager of the massively successful Old West theme park that’s bought up most of OJ’s horses for his own entertainment business. On another level, Jupe is a former child star (played as a youth by Jacob Kim), the sole surviving cast member of a ’90s sitcom that tragically ended when the chimpanzee co-star suddenly flew into a murderous rampage. (The chimpanzee was mo-capped by Terry Notary, because of course he fucking was.)
What does any of this have to do with the aliens? Not much in terms of narrative. But in terms of theme, it all dovetails beautifully together in a superbly genius way in the third act.
What’s more, the chimpanzee incident is cited as a landmark event that caused the industry to gradually phase out the use of live animals on set. Earlier on, there’s one point in which a commercial shoot drops the Haywood ranch in favor of using a CGI model. And remember, the whole movie starts by tying a direct line between the use of live horses to the beginning of cinema itself.
The point being that the use of live animals vs. CGI is emblematic of a greater conflict between old filmmaking techniques and new technology. This same conflict is drawn in sharper contrast during the climax, in which the characters have to use old-fashioned film cameras because the UFO keeps wiping out the electronics.
Getting back to the “horror” aspect, Peele continues to show a preternatural touch with unsettling visuals. As with so many of his previous works, the film is littered with cryptic and ominous visual clues that turn out to be something far more disturbing when more is revealed. Other such visuals turn out to be red herrings — no joke, half the bizarre visuals you’ve seen in the trailers turn out to be nothing. But there’s a reason those visuals are still in the trailers, because they’re still creative and unnerving and undeniably memorable even if they’re superfluous. I simply can’t begrudge the film for leading me down a false path when the clues leading me there are so damned cool.
Once again, Peele shows an aversion to jump scares, for which we should all be thankful. Instead, Peele leans on threats that hide in plain sight. So many times, we see some shadow, some cloud, some trick of the light concealing a threat we didn’t even see right in front of us until it finally moves. It’s creepy and legitimately terrifying. And again, I have to lean on the Jaws comparison, because so much of the horror is in knowing the threat is out there and we’re all just waiting for it to surface.
For that matter, Jupe might be seen as the Mayor Vaughn analogue, the wealthy and powerful pillar of the community who ignores the looming threat out of greed and hubris. We’ve even got a Quint analogue in Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), an eccentric cinematographer obsessed with capturing the UFO in the most perfect shot. I could also point to certain similarities in the climax, but we’re not going there for this review.
Anyway, Kaluuya and Palmer grated on me at first, but as their characters quit their squabbling and grew stronger, I found it easier to root for them. And even when OJ and Em are at their lowest, Kaluuya still turned in a committed performance and Palmer is a powerhouse of charm. Wincott is another highlight, diving headlong into a magnetic performance of disturbed genius. I haven’t even mentioned Brandon Perea, here playing the unwitting Fry’s employee/conspiracy theorist who gets roped into all this madness when he helps set up the new cameras at the ranch. Perea nicely provides a necessary comic foil for the two siblings.
On a final miscellaneous note, of course I have to mention Peele’s knack for needle drops. Though the musical selections are wonderful throughout, the numbers are much more notable for how they’re used diegetically. So many times in this movie, there are times when music cuts out or slows down and warps as a signal that the aliens have arrived. An especially prominent example is Corey Hart’s perennial ’80s classic “Sunglasses at Night”, here warped and slowed down in a freaky and disturbing manner. (The similarities to Us and its use of “I Got 5 On It” are undeniable.) But of course my favorite example is the “One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Purple Eater” reference that sent me and everyone else in my audience rolling in the aisles.
NOPE is nothing at all like what I was expecting, and I’m honestly happy about that. As a cinematic parable about race, the film doesn’t make any sense at all. As a horror film with gory kills cat-and-mouse chases with some homicidal threat, the movie doesn’t really deliver. But as a sci-fi adventure romp with a slick sense of humor, wickedly clever setups and payoffs, and some action set pieces that are damned impressive for this scale and budget, I had a great time with this one. If nothing else, I have to give major kudos for any filmmaker who can take the threadbare Jaws formula and remix it into something fresh.
It’s impressive that Jordan Peele has so thoroughly entrenched his brand after only three or four movies (depending on how you count, and let’s not forget the films he’s produced). But it’s greatly encouraging that he can shake things up to deliver some measure of variety and surprise. Keep an open mind and check this one out.