The response to horror auteur Jordan Peele’s latest, deliciously unpredictable creation, stands out from his previous two outings. Peele’s originality was once framed as symptomatic of why the film industry – particularly Hollywood – ought to open itself up to artists outside of the traditional white-male-and-stale category helming major projects. In the case of Nope, though, the one thing that critics seem to agree on is that this film should be framed as an homage to a procession of white filmmakers.
In Michael Shindler’s review for The American Spectator, for example, Werner Herzog gets more column-space than Daniel Kaluuya – the film’s chief protagonist, Otis – despite the former only having a tenuous link to the production (unless you assume that any depiction of an obsessive and stoic cinematographer is inherrently Herzogian). Meanwhile, Mark Kermode’s write-up for The Guardian (the better of the paper’s two reviews) cannot help but suggest that its central theme is “cheekily echoed in Adam McKay’s recent Don’t Look Up”. And then of course, there is the comparison which critics are phoning so regularly that Rotten Tomatoes has included it in its consensus description of the film: it’s Spielbergian.
Of course, it’s not wrong to ever note white artists when talking about Peele’s work as though they are all diametrically opposed. Peele himself was keen to defend the legacy of John Carpenter recently, when one fan claimed Peele had already surpassed the legendary horror director’s accomplishments. But there is undeniably a concerted effort to repackage Nope as taking inspiration from white-produced art it offers a critique of.
In the case of Spielberg, it is taken at face value that due to his blockbusting success with creature features (Jaws) and UFOs (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Peele’s combination of both must be a homage to him. But doing so seems to be downplaying the way that the film’s central critiques of turning horrific events into cash-cows might be applied to our relationship to commercial storytelling itself.
Now, before we get into what I mean by that; if you have not seen Nope yet, I implore you to seek it out in the cinema (if that route is still open to you), or streaming if all else fails. If you mean to do that, pick this article up where you left off after the credits roll.
Nope follows Otis (a gruff, understated Kaluuya) as he tries to step into the shoes of his late father while running a horse ranch. The facility trains horses for Hollywood – something Otis Sr (Keith David) claims has been in the family for generations, as the unnamed jockey in “Plate 626” from Eadweard Muybridge’s 1884 Animal Locomotion series of photographs was supposedly their ancestor.
Otis is already struggling when horses begin to go missing from the ranch. When he notices something moving behind the clouds during the first abduction, he and his sister Em (Keke Palmer) are not intimidated or upset. In fact, they see this as an opportunity to make money! They set about trying to coax what appears to be a flying saucer into the open, so that they can get a clear image of it in their security camera system – before selling the footage on. By doing so, they mistakenly enter into an agreement with a creature which they do not fully understand and which is capable of untold horrors.
Running parallel to this is the story of Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child actor whose career was cut short when a chimpanzee went awol on the set of his 90s sitcom. It must be said that of Peele’s three features, this is the most disturbing and least comedic (something that led to one particularly asinine criticism from The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw that the film lacked “the humour for which Peele justly became celebrated” in his time working on the sketch-show Key & Peele) – but by far the most upsetting sequence is Jupe’s reliving of the bloody final moments of Gordy’s Home. After the titular chimp commits to an increasingly squishy-sounding bludgeoning of his co-stars on the other side of a sofa, silence falls. The gore-soaked primate seems unsure of what to do next, until his unblinking gaze settles on a young Jupe – hiding under a table. Approaching slowly, never once looking away, Gordy approaching, breathing heavily. Amid the deathly hush, Jupe can only gaze back, frozen in terror. But rather than strike out, the chimp lifts out his hand, to perform a fist-bump the two had routinely shared for the last season of work – an exploding fist-bump that detonates in a horrific manner, when the ape is gunned down from behind, punctuating the scene.
What Jupe takes from this is that he is the sole witness of a miracle. As the survivor, untouched by the violence of the predator, he is chosen. He has a kinship with such creatures – and it is something he hopes to turn to his advantage in the present day. In the way every true capitalist internalises their luck as destiny, when he sees the UFO abduct his horse and not him, he determines that it too shares a connection with him because it hasn’t abducted him. He gathers up a rag-tag audience, with the idea of looking to monetise the spectacle of the predatory saucer.
By the time he realises his mistake, it is too late. We learn, as had been hypothesised earlier, this might not be a machine at all. As they gaze up, the audience is unwittingly infuriating a predator, by gazing deep into its eyes (not a great idea with chimps either) – sealing their fate. The organic creature hoovers up any protein it can – with its prey doomed to a horrific fate of screaming, conscious within its stomach, waiting to be digested.
Exploitation as ‘spectacle’
In this moment, it is easy to see why this is the chief component of Steven Spielberg’s filmography that springs to mind for critics watching Nope. It is the antithesis of the mystified upward-gaze of protagonists in his alien films – allowed to gawp in awe at the spectacle above them, and inviting us to bask in the event vicariously through them. But this is not a spectacle – it is a both a tangible living thing, and a perpetuator of massive suffering.
In this sense, Peele arguably brings into play a very different, less comfortable, element of Spielberg’s back-catalogue. People like to talk about Spielberg as two artists – a ringmaster of great blockbusting tales like Jurassic Park, and a serious auteur when it comes to pictures like Amistad. But his treatment of real-life horrors often echoes the popcorn fare that he puts out elsewhere. The swelling John Williams scores; the lush cinematography; the emphasis on white saviours amid stories of historic persecution among other ethnicities; all serve to turn mass traumas into marketable commodities. It transforms the suffering of Black slaves in early America, or Jews in concentration camps, into a consumable product, imploring audiences to revel in all the signs of how far we’ve come, thanks to a kindly Oskar Schindler here, or John Adams there – lulling us into feeling that simply by observing the spectacle, we have done all we need do.
Nope in many senses challenges that. It shows us that by gazing deeply into the suffering mainstream cinema so often seeks to exploit as a consumable, we are ourselves being metabolised by some amorphous, destructive force. There is no placid viewing of Schindler’s List or Lincoln – because they are part of an ideological mechanism that has us overlook how utterly desperate things are in the present day. And doing that is something which will ultimately come back to bite us.
However, the solution to this is not to look away, as has been suggested by many reviews as being the core lesson. In the final third of Nope, we are treated to a Western-style showdown with the monster – which depends very much on defying the earlier established rule. Only by looking at the monster can our heroes draw it out and confront it. Only then can they bear witness to its other forms, its behaviour, or how it can be defeated.
More than simply providing an homage to a procession of white filmmakers, or a Spielbergian consumable, then, Peele’s story directs us away from the cinema with homework. Nope challenges us to confront the idea of spectacle, and its linking to systems of human cruelty via narratives we have been taught are innocent products for our simple enjoyment. What ideological cycles of unspeakable horror and destruction might our latest popcorn-flick be perpetuating? How might we prevent ourselves being sucked into its inescapable belly? We shall see.