Thoughts on Jordan Peele’s NOPE

Author’s Note: Dear friends, spoilers abound. Therefore, if you have not seen this film and still intend to, proceed with caution.

On my first watch of Jordan Peele’s Nope, I was in a state of confusion from beginning to end. On my second watch, I enjoyed the movie more, even laughing aloud a few times. And yet, certain issues I had on my first watch were never resolved. I had questions about the murderous chimpanzee, questions about at least half of the characters’ decisions and motivations, and I had trouble making sense of the story itself. I couldn’t make head or tail of the chapter titles beyond surmising that each was the name of a different horse. On that first watch, I felt myself go, “Ah?” every time the picture on the screen cut to black, including the final title card of “NOPE” at the end. I also felt, on first watch, that there was far too much talking at times, with very little action. The second time, because I already knew the plot, I was significantly less frustrated with the pacing.

Film poster for NOPE

But I should touch on the things about the film that I enjoyed the most, since the rest of this piece is going to be about… the opposite of those.

I was a big fan of Keke Palmer’s performance. Keke is a superstar, an incredibly vibrant personality, and the character of Em fit on her so well. Em herself was interesting and endearing. A charismatic Jill-of-all-trades, a talkative, queer (loved how subtly and naturally this was written into her character), reckless, adorably annoying and juvenile at times. Her expressiveness certainly compensated for her brother’s stark lack of it.

I appreciated the understated humor within the script. Like when the white woman at the studio did a double take when OJ introduced himself as “OJ”. We all know exactly which OJ she was thinking of. And then there was that meta joke was when we, as viewers of the film, had to witness Jupe saying to a fictional audience that they were being surveilled by a species called “the Viewers”. That’s the sort of corny thing I’d write into a slightly absurd comedy.

A few more: I enjoyed how naturally and often the film’s title was worked into the dialogue. The title felt so appropriate because of it. And the alien, in its full form, really was pretty, a spectacle mesmerizing enough to be worthy of attention.

And now we return to the issues. Starting with that chimpanzee.

The first visual that viewers of Nope encounter is a gory scene on a studio soundstage, most of the gore conveniently hidden from the screen, teased at by a pair of limp legs and a blood-spattered simian. Now, there’s a certain level of expectation a storyteller creates when they use something so dramatic and provocative as an introduction. One of the effects this scene had on me was that it made me expect that whatever had happened with the chimpanzee was deeply connected to the central event, if not itself being the central event of Nope’s storyline.

Alas.

I watched until the end, waiting for at least an explanation for just why the simian went rogue. I got nothing. I watched until the end, waiting for the moment when the chimpanzee’s massacre is shown to have been crucially tied to the film’s true antagonist monster: the alien in the sky. But, as far as I can tell, even after two watches, the chimpanzee and the alien have nothing to do with each other. The chimp seemed to be relevant solely as part of a secondary character’s backstory, nothing else.

I understand that not every element of every story has to be absolutely critical to the central event. But I believe that plot points of secondary importance shouldn’t be set up for the audience as points of primary importance. Otherwise, it feels like false expectations have been set, pertinent questions have gone unanswered, and now the audience—namely me—is left to deal with disappointment that could have been avoided. In my opinion, the intrigue and shock value of that intro scene was outweighed by the false expectations it set for me, when that scene could possibly have been more artfully placed somewhere else.

My next point is about death. I have to admit, I had some discomforts with the way the film and the main characters handled death. I didn’t understand why Otis Snr’s dying words were—presumably—horse names. On second watch, I paid close attention to his delirious ramblings, thinking I could figure out their relevance. But they didn’t seem linked to the film’s chapter titles or just about anything else, and I wondered why a dying man, even in a state of semi-consciousness, would be more concerned about his horses than, say, the children he’s leaving behind.

More importantly, however, I take issue with OJ and Emerald’s response to their father’s death—or, more accurately, their lack of response. For the greater part of the movie, his death hardly seems to have an emotional effect on either child. While I know that grief looks different on different people, it is still hard for me to come to terms with an attitude of, “Daddy just died, time to go bust out his liquor, haha!” or, “Some madness in the sky killed our daddy, let’s find a way to go viral and get rich off it, haha!”

I have read reviews and articles that interpret the Haywood siblings’ obsession with getting “the Oprah shot” as a desperate attempt to financially save their historic, Black-owned horse ranch. That is not the impression I got when I watched it. The film did not give me the sense that the maintenance of the ranch was truly a priority for either of the Haywood siblings, especially Emerald, whom, you might remember, is the one who brought up the “Oprah shot” idea in the first place. In Em’s own words, the horse ranch is her side gig. OJ, I could almost believe is concerned with keeping the ranch alive. Almost, but not quite. It doesn’t help me believe that OJ cares about anything at all, when he spends the entire movie hardly veering away from his deadpan facial expression and his low vocal monotone. I can believe, through some of his actions, that he cares personally for his horses. But I cannot be convinced that saving the ranch from financial doom was his motivator for capturing the alien on camera. Sure, he mentions to Em that he is broke, but OJ doesn’t come off as the type of person who would chase money for the hell of it. Frankly, I don’t know what his motivation was at all. I wonder if this was part of Jordan Peele’s point: that people chase spectacle, obsessively, often illogically, often at the expense of their own wellbeing, simply for the sake of the spectacle.

If that is indeed Peele’s point, I have to say that I don’t see the point of trying to make such a point. While I agree that, in our camera-filled society, individuals do chase spectacle obsessively and often illogically, I don’t think that there really is any sort of danger that humans are obsessed with capturing spectacle to the point of complete disregard for their own lives and safety. Interestingly enough, I feel like I’d have afforded more credibility to Nope if it didn’t feel like it was trying, with any gravity, to offer social commentary. I might have enjoyed the plot more if I felt the film didn’t take itself so seriously, and that it was intended to be an absurdist parody. As it exists now, the film feels generically confused, like a parody attempting to wear the garments of horror.

The way I understand it, one of the purposes of parody is to expose the ridiculousness of certain phenomena through techniques such as exaggeration. Nothing about Nope felt more parodical than that TMZ guy on his motorcycle. That character—and not any of the film’s speculative elements—felt to me like the single most unrealistic part of the entire film. More than parody, he was a downright caricature. Here’s why I felt like his character, as well as the character of Antlers, do not work well as serious social commentary: Humans are often stupid, and do naturally become mesmerized by the things we find fascinating, even if grimly so, but our senses of self-preservation can be incredibly strong. Fight-or-flight responses are innately wired into a great many of us. When we are faced with things we don’t understand, our response is often fear, and our fear often takes the form of either, “OMG, kill it!” or, “OMG, run away!” I find it very hard to suspend my disbelief for the response of “Attempt to capture this terrifying, mysterious thing on camera in a way that fully avails myself to be eaten by it!”

At this point, I want to talk about the parts of the story where I feel the author’s hand was not concealed well enough to prevent certain things from coming off as too artificial.

As a writer, I often face a certain challenge: as omniscient creator, I know how the plot is meant to go, and what I have intended for the characters to do, and so I just… make them do it, without bothering to adequately set the events up or justify the characters’ actions for the reader. This often happens unconsciously, and sometimes has to be pointed out to me by an editor or critique partner. Left unresolved, these are the sorts of issues that might make an audience go, “Ah?” at various points of a story. That said, I feel like there was no precedent, no adequate set-up, to justify why OJ and Em are so superstitious, or why they’re apparent experts on the alien they literally just met.

Why is it so automatic that OJ jumps to the conclusion that something supernatural/extraterrestrial killed his father, in the absence of concrete evidence? Why is Em so quick to ride on the UFO hypothesis without a challenge to her brother? In the current age, and especially in secular America, the more credible response from Em would have been to question OJ’s sanity, or otherwise dismiss the unexplainable, or suggest something more logical. There are certain groups of people—a particular brand of West African aunties, for instance—for whom it could make all the sense in the world to land first and firmly on the supernatural explanation for any weird event. I do not feel like OJ and Em fall into any such categories of people. The only reason I can come up with for why they can accept the fact of the UFO so easily is that the author wanted them to. All the time Peele spent in his prologue priming us for a level of gore which, face it, never visually delivers, he could have spent adequately setting up his actual main characters as superstitious, or at the very least, religious people. It wouldn’t even have to be dramatic. Say something relatively spooky happened to either OJ or Em, and they reflexively crossed themselves. Or maybe a throwaway detail, like, one of the characters has a visible crucifix tattoo, or wears a chain with an African mask pendant. Any sort of cue that tells us, “These characters have a propensity for superstition,” so that, when they conclude at once that aliens are responsible for their father’s death, it’s not too weird. Even Angel—very much a side character—was better justified than the main characters were. Angel’s character—technology geek, forum browser, conspiracy theory nerd—was set up such that his easy acceptance of the alien provoked no further questions. Not so for OJ and Em.

Additionally, every single supposition the Haywood kids made about the alien was extraordinarily accurate. Again, I feel like this was because the author knew exactly how the plot was supposed to go, and therefore had the characters just know everything they might need to know for the plot to go that way. It shouldn’t have been so easy for the Haywoods to figure out how the wavy, balloon-person things would affect the alien, or to figure out that a decoy horse would work exactly as they wanted it to, or to understand that the alien thrives on being given the attention of the eye, or that the alien would go exactly where they wanted it to go when they were drawing up the plan on how to capture it on camera. That lack of credibility, the author showing his hand too much, prevented me from being truly immersed in the story.

I’d also like to throw in the fact that, even though the story of the horse, Jean Jacket, was recounted in the drinking scene, I couldn’t find any logical connection or justification for why OJ later decided to name the alien after that horse. If Peele was trying to do something poetic there concerning Em’s childhood experience with the horse Jean Jacket, I have to admit that it didn’t clock for me at all.

And then there was the problem of how the alien gave the Haywood kids too much of a fighting chance. At the beginning of the film, the alien killed Otis Snr; no warning, no need for the attention of the eye, no mercy—dead. When the alien took out the Jupiter’s Claim theme park, all it needed was a few seconds of optical attention, and bang, everyone was getting sucked up. The alien sucked Antlers up with extraordinary swiftness once he gave it his attention. Even Angel didn’t even have to look at the alien for too long to get himself sucked up. And yet. In the final showdown between OJ, Em, and the alien, the alien was inexplicably able to hesitate long enough for the siblings to be screaming, “Come on!” at each other, giving each other touching, inside-knowledge hand gestures, manipulating the alien by trying to steal its attention away from the other. Even though the Haywoods looked at it repeatedly and with determination, it waited, it moved slowly, when every other time, it had been swift. But for the Haywood kids, it hesitated long enough to be manipulated into self-destruction? Hard for me not to believe the author’s hand was way overexposed here. Nope. I couldn’t buy it, I’m sorry.

My final point is on the theme of Black response to horror genre phenomena. Many are familiar with the popular discourse about how Black characters would never do the stupid things white characters do in typical horror movies. The idea is that Black characters wouldn’t think to themselves, “Hmm, let me go towards this creepy phenomenon and stupidly put myself in the position to become a victim.” It’s generally understood that a more authentic Black response would be, “Nope, I’m out.” So I can kind of understand why some Twitter users would laud the scene of OJ in the stables saying, “Nope,” and getting tense as the Blackest scene in any horror movie. After my first watch of Nope, however, my sentiments were that these Black protagonists actually had some very typical white character responses to spooky phenomena: they stayed in the haunted house instead of packing up and saying deuces. They chased the alien, pursuing what I consider to be a bit of an asinine goal, instead of running away from the murderous thing like sensible people should. Even in that stable scene, OJ didn’t bother to try to leave as things were getting tenser. On second watch, however, I was more lenient, at least towards Em. Because it was only on second watch that I truly registered that Em pushed, multiple times, to clear off and leave things the hell alone, and that she very nearly did, and probably would have, if Antlers hadn’t texted her back. I haven’t cut the protagonists slack completely, because I still don’t see any justification for OJ’s pigheaded determination to pursue the asinine goal at all, especially when it wasn’t even his idea. And I still think that, even in the face of Antlers’ text, and even in spite of their eventual victory, the most sensible thing to do would have been to leave the alien the hell alone—and if not, it should have been better justified why not.

-Akotowaa 🕸️

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