Simply put, Nope – the third feature film from writer-director Jordan Peele – is the most intriguing movie of the year. On a surface level, it’s a beautifully shot, pulse-pounding UFO thriller. But like Peele’s previous films Get Out and Us, Nope is saturated with symbolism and allegory. Nope raises provocative questions about our cultural climate without ever providing clear answers. But we think we cracked the code.
Warning: SPOILERS follow
In Nope, the UFO/ alien is a metaphor for the attention economy, and how it debases all of us, from those who create it to those who consume it. Consider the opening quotation: “I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle – Nahum 3:6.” This is followed by a series of striking images, divorced of context—a shoe curiously suspended in gravity; a chimpanzee covered in blood. Right away, Peele is throwing a spectacle at viewers (“The Viewers” is also the name that Stephen Yuen’s character Ricky gives to the alien), and like the proverb suggests, the audience is implicated in vileness.
The idea of “spectacle” is repeatedly invoked throughout the film. When describing his first encounter with the alien, Ricky calls it an “absolute spectacle.” That sequence is preceded by the flashback that provides context to the image of the bloody ape, which was the aftermath of an attack on the set of Ricky’s show “Gordy’s Home.” Tellingly, we don’t see much of the attack itself; everything is framed through the first-person perspective of Ricky, who is hiding under the table. We learn that Ricky has built a secret room that serves as a museum to the tragedy, and that people are willing to pay up to $50k to spend the night there. Along with his anecdote about the Saturday Night Live skit based on “Gordy’s Home,” we get a clear sense that pop culture, the character of Ricky, and the world at large is willing, even eager, to commodify such grotesquery.
That includes the film’s heroes. Among the only Black horse trainers in Hollywood, OJ and Em (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) are understandably and justifiably proud of their family’s legacy. But Haywood’s Hollywood Horses is more than complicit in the sale of spectacle; their great-great-great-great grandfather was literally the first person on film, making them direct descendents of the original sinner.
The film also takes great pains to point out that not all spectacles are the same. The Haywood siblings know that we’ve become numb to grainy UFO footage. What they need is “The Oprah Shot,” footage so compelling and indisputable that they wind up on a prestigious talk show rather than a random YouTube link. With the help of renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (who cautions Em that, “This dream you’re chasing – the one where you end up at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you – it’s the dream you never wake up from”) they devise a clever plan to achieve their goal, until something goes wrong.
That something is a TMZ cameraman on an electric motorbike. As a metaphor for sensationalism, TMZ might be a little obvious but there’s no disputing the fact that they’ve been the preeminent peddler of salacious spectacle for most of the 21st century. And when the power cuts on his bike, the photographer is more concerned with the footage of his crash than any injuries he may have sustained. As the Nahum proverb warns, we are all made vile in our pursuit of spectacle.
But how do we know that Peele’s metaphor is a warning about the attention economy rather than, say, a meditation on the differences between high and low art? Because the only way to survive the ship is to avert your eyes. Like Ricky learns, you can not tame it. Like the TMZ biker discovers, you can not exploit it. The only way to overcome “The Viewer” is to choose to not engage, even (or perhaps especially) after it has metamorphosed into a beautiful, transfixing shape.
So there you have it: The spaceship is a stand-in for toxic media. Jordan Peele may not be the first filmmaker to explore this idea, but he’s certainly one of the most talented. Moreover, the movie is smart to indict its audience in their own culpability around this phenomena. There’s only one solution if we’re to avoid suffering the same fate as the Haywood home – a vile spectacle soaked in abominable filth – and that’s to keep our eyes straight ahead, focused on the horizon, shaking our heads, repeating a simple mantra: NOPE.
Other new releases now available to rent on DISH:
I Love My Dad
Spin Me Round
Brian and Charles