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‘Nope’ is Jordan Peele’s Unidentifiable Freaky Opus
Peele’s new sci-fi spectacle is a fittingly fresh self-referential take on the classic UFO summer event film, ambitiously crammed with surprises.
While struggling to maintain their late father’s horse-wrangling ranch in an arid valley outside Los Angeles, soft-spoken OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his irresponsible but infectiously extroverted sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) begin witnessing inexplicable celestial phenomena that they resolve to capture on camera. What begins as an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the demand for conspiracy footage escalates into a terrifying unpredictable life or death survival thriller.
Jordan Peele first became well-known as a sketch comedy actor, so many fans were understandably surprised by his directorial debut, Get Out; firstly because it was a socially charged psychological horror, and secondly, because it was nominated four times at the 2018 Academy Awards and won Best Original Screenplay.
The link between Peele’s comedy and his horror filmmaking is his understanding of suspense and misdirection. Whatever you expect from Peele’s films, you will always be surprised, in part because he keeps the nature of his movies close to the chest during their marketing.
Compared to other blockbusters (which tend to give away the majority of the plot in two minutes) the trailers and advertising materials for Nope were highly withholding, so most viewers walk into the film unsure what it’s really about, or even what genre to expect.
Even after watching Nope it remains difficult to classify. With its science fiction subject matter, filmed in a Western setting, stylised as a horror, with satirical symbolism, Nope is still greater than the sum of those parts and uses your expectations of those genres to throw you off the scent.
“When you have a box, you have a magic trick waiting to happen and an audience waiting to be surprised; so, if you can find a box, bust it open!” says Peele.
Peele’s movies give the viewer license to enjoy violent visceral entertainment by imbuing it with subversive symbolism. His previous features, Get Out and Us, were impossible to watch without engaging with racial politics. The social commentary in Nope is handled differently — there is very little deeper meaning attached to the main plot of the film; most of the societal statements come from the parallels drawn between the main plot and a subplot involving a chimpanzee.
The film begins by introducing us to Jupe, a child star in a comically cheesy 90s sitcom called Gordy’s Home about a family who live with a pet chimp (Gordy). After a few minutes of excerpts from the fictitious show, we witness a horrific accident in which a startling noise causes the ape to go on a violent rampage. The scene is likely inspired by the real-life case of Travis, the acting chimp who in 2009 disfigured his owner’s friend when she picked up his Elmo doll.
The traumatic incident abruptly ended Jupe’s acting career, but 20 years later the former child star (acted as an adult by Steven Yeun) is monetising his previous exploitation by Hollywood with a theme park in the neighbouring property to the Haywood ranch.
“As a child actor, Jupe was really betrayed by the industry, and yet all these years later, he still wants it,” Peele says. “He still hasn’t woken up from that dream.
Having survived Gordy’s infamous attack as a child, Jupe has the misconstrued notion that humans can control or master dangerous things they do not understand, and this compels him to attempt to “train” the mysterious phenomenon above the Haywood ranch.
Jupe has minimal involvement in the main plot; his purpose is to contextualise it and show how a story about a UFO relates to the real world. It’s the chimpanzee’s wildness that fascinated fans of Gordy’s Home, and a morbid curiosity that makes it impossible to look away from the gruesome carnage Gordy eventually unleashed. The comparison between Jupe’s story and that of the Haywood siblings is to highlight society’s addiction to the spectacle.
The intentional irony to Peele’s exploration of morbid spectacle in society is that his films are horrifically transfixing and grand spectacles themselves. Peele has a somewhat unique ability to create horror in broad daylight in his films; but it’s appropriate that for a film about capturing the impossible on camera, Nope cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema was able to achieve staggering footage of the vastness of the Haywood ranch at night by creating a unique rig which used day-for-night technology (a Hollywood technique in which scenes are filmed at particular angles to the sun and then darkened or edited with a blue filter and other effects to create the illusion of night).
“Nope is of a bigger scope than any story I’ve ever tried to tell,” Jordan Peele says. “I had this idea of making the Great American UFO movie, and not only a flying saucer horror film, but really, the quintessential one. It’s a difficult genre and hard to pull off because it’s got this huge canvas that you have to take into account — the sky.”
Though Nope is set up as a quintessential American UFO flick, it also develops the genre by poking fun at classic tropes. One of the supporting characters, an angsty Fry’s Electronics employee (Brandon Perea) who often serves as the comic relief, is a diehard fan of the infamous American television show Ancient Aliens, and lists all the most clichéd explanations for theoretical extraterrestrials visiting earth — world-killers, planetary travellers looking for peace, humans coming back in time to prevent us from destroying the planet. Peele’s explanation is far simpler, darker, and more compelling.
The film was nearly called Little Green Men, a title sending up the dated conception of aliens in cinema. Nope is a comparatively abstract name referring to OJ Haywood’s amusing reaction to the freaky phenomenon. In contrast to his animated sister, OJ is highly restrained, so his delivery of this one-word line in one of the tensest moments is an unexpected jolt of relatable humour that makes the inexplicit title work.
With its strange name, cryptic title cards and constant back and forth between the main and subplots, Nope is pretty all over the place. Viewers primarily watching for the spectacle of the film may be irritated by the uneven pacing created by the constant interruptions by Jupe’s backstory, while those interested in the underlying symbolism may wish this subplot was more directly tied to the central narrative.
Peele’s fans will revel in the smaller details he includes, like Copperpots Cove — a fictional restaurant chain first seen in Us, or the crucial but unexplained floating shoe that remains a mystery and has been scrutinised at length on the internet. The broader appeal of Nope is the way it morphs as a film — the suspense and obfuscation builds and peaks in the middle, at the point where the bloodcurdling significance of the spooky soundtrack suddenly becomes clear. And then almost immediately once you grasp what’s been going on, it becomes an entirely different kind of adventure, no longer as scary as it is exciting, and rounding off with an epic showmanship more reminiscent of a Western than anything else. DM/ ML
Nope is available in cinemas.
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In case you missed it, also read Roar action – it’s visceral rather than intellectual, but ‘Beast’ is refreshingly cringe-free
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