Nope (2022)

There was a time, however briefly, when blockbusters were made by the same directors of the New Hollywood and weren’t just product placement intended to get toys into Target for a 6 week cycle, but actual movies that stirred up emotions and made us look into the unknown with wonder or terror. With just three films — Get Out and Us precede this — Jordan Peele has started to take the journey that others before him — M. Night Shyamalan is just one example — have tried and failed to navigate. Can filmmakers create challenging movies that appeal to audiences while having sometimes difficult to follow narratives and not underline and telegraph every single point they are trying to get across?

In case you’re wondering, “Just how big is this movie going to get?” the answer comes with a Biblical verse that fills the screen:  “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.” — Nahum 3:6.

The seventh in order of the minor prophets, Nahum was known as the “comforter,” despite his words mainly concerning the downfall of Assyria. They’re strong words; indeed, translator Rev. John Owen said that “No one of the minor Prophets seems to equal the sublimity, the vehemence and the boldness of Nahum.” His main message was that God will protect his faithful people and by doing so, will also destroy all of the violent human empires. You can consider his words a stiff rebuke against militarism and arrogance.

From here on our…spoilers abound.

After this, we see our first glimpse of Gordy’s Home, a 1998 sitcom about a chimp living with a human family. If the first message of Nope is right out there in writing before the movie even begins — spectacle is what human beings crave and they’ll destroy themselves for it — the second message takes time to come to light. It’s also quite simple: you can’t make deals with a predator. You can only change your behavior and slightly influence their own to survive alongside them, which is basically how animal training works.

Predators can’t be tamed. At all.

But before we get to the tragedy of Gordy the chimp, we need to get to the tragedy at the heart — tragedies — of Nope.

Ranch owner Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) is the owner of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses Ranch, which has provided live horses to Hollywood productions since, well, before movies even existed. The Haywoods claim that the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion was their great-great (maybe just great) grandfather, a black man whose identity is lost in time while the white man who made the movie is remembered forever. As Otis and his son OJ (Otis Jr., played by Daniel Kaluuya) ready horses for a shoot, a rain of metal falls to the Earth with a nickel hitting the elder Haywood directly in the eye, killing him.

The next time we see OJ, he’s becoming withdrawn, taking a horse to the set of a commercial that will be shot by cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, Top Dollar from The Crow;  he’s also in CurtainsRobin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Strange Days amongst many other great roles) and directed by an Flynn Bachman, played by Osgood Perkins (Norman’s son and the director of I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House).

OJ’s sister Emerald (one-time Nickelodeon star Keke Palmer) arrives late and she’s his opposite; while he’s hard-working he has no idea how to act around human beings. She’s able to get an entire room of hardened Hollywood industry vets — look for Donna Mills, she of The Eyes Have It and seeing as how important vision becomes later, that can’t be an accident — on her side near instantly. Then, one of the horses freaks out when a crew member doesn’t listen to how important the boundaries of an animal are. The Haywoods are fired; they’ll just replace the animal with CGI, just like Gordy is throughout the film.

Emerald catches a ride with OJ, as she has things back at the house that she wants. She’s a free-spirit where OJ often remarks on all of the mouths that he has to feed. Emerald has inherited the show business side of their father (right before the final plan comes together, she watches a video of him giving his pitch; this speech is word for word what she said on the commercial shoot) while OJ has the quiet put in the work side. As for their mother, it seems as if she died young and the kids ended up raising one another as much as their father raised them.

On the way back to the ranch, Em encourages OJ to stop selling horses one at a time and to sell the entire ranch to their neighbor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), who by no small twist of fate he’s the former star of Gordy’s Home who has taken his fame in some strange pathways. His new ranch, Jupiter’s Claim, is based on the movie Kid Sheriff that he made after Gordy’s rampage. Now the star of reality TV with his family, he has a hidden room filled with mementos of the show, including the bloody shoe that somehow stands perfectly upright after Gordy maims and kills his TV family, the Houstons (played by Sophia Coto as Mary Jo Elliott, Andrew Patrick Ralston as Tom Bogan and Jennifer Lafleur as Phyllis Mayberry). This part of the movie gets to the spectacle; in our world, I doubt very much that Saturday Night Live and Mad Magazine would outright make such satire of such a tragedy during which at least two people died. Yet Jupe repeats the sketch and keeps laughing about just how great Chris Kattan was in it (it’s to the credit of Peele’s love of comedy that everyone in this sketch is period accurate). However, throughout the film, we see young Jupe terrorized by Gordy, who had been frightened by a popping balloon, and now is covered in blood, demanding a fist bump and signing, “Where is family?” He’s gotten over it in the way that only a Hollywood person can, by exploiting the tragedy. And he’s not done yet.

By the way — in a cool twist of real life fate, the land of Jupiter’s Claim once belonged to civil engineer William Mulholland and the farmhouse land was at one point owned by director Howard Hawks.

Why would Emerald want to sell her past? She feels no connection since her father broke his promise to teach her how to train her own horse — Jean Jacket — and spent that time with OJ instead.

And now, a significant period of time into the film, we get our first ideas of what the plot is all about: there’s something in the sky eating organic material and spitting out the metal. OJ and Emerald decide to capture footage of it — thereby creating something on film — an “Oprah shot” — that their name can be remembered by, unlike their great-great grandfather, and this takes them to Fry’s Electronics, where Angel (Brandon Perea) installs their surveillance equipment and near-immediately figures out that they’re looking for a UFO. After all, he saw them on TV.

They’re also no longer UFOs. They’re Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, a name the government has given to them once everybody figures it all out. Interestingly, the idea of organic UAP or animals in the sky is not new; tentacles creatures, strange lines and even thunderbirds — according to History Daily, the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper dated April 26, 1890 reported that two local ranchers killed an enormous and mysterious winged monster with a body nearly 90 feet long with a wingspan of 160 feet — have been reported as aerial phenomena for decades.

At the same time, Jupe has been planning a show called the Star Lasso Experience and it proves that he learned nothing from the night that Gordy went wild. He has been feeding the Haywood horses he’d bought — horses trained over many years with specialized skills that are fed like they mean nothing — to the alien that he calls “The Visitor.” He’s planned a special show — there are many empty seats as for now — and even invited Mary Jo, his fellow survivor and forever scarred first crush, to see the aliens in action. Well, everyone gets more than a front row seat.

The deaths during this show finally convince the cinematographer Holst to visit the ranch and use his handcranked camera, tube man props and a wild plan to get the best imagery of a UFO ever taken. Hoist is seeking an impossible shot, one that he’s looked for his entire life, one that will cost him his life, but not before he intones a scratch-throated, eerie version of Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater.”

Angel, OJ and Emerald barely survive the return of the creature — sitting inside a never moving cloud, ready to reduce man’s electronic innovations to dead machines — but they still get off luckier than the TMZ journalist — and Akira motorcycle rider — named Ryder Muybridge (Devon Graye, the writer of I See You and the Trickster on The Flash). They do learn that the creature — which now looks like another anime reference, one of the angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion — can be harmed when it eats inorganic matter that appears organic. OJ also learns that he must use what he always had — his convictions, his ability to protect others, knowing not to look a predator in the eye or deal with it in human terms — to save everyone.

He also runs the track in the same way that the black jockey in Muybridge’s film once did, but now he’s not just a man on a horse. He’s a strong black man with agency, a heroic figure played by someone whose name — Daniel Kaluuya — we won’t forget. It’s no accident that one of the posters on the walls in the Haywood home is for Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut Buck and the Preacher, one of the first movies to show black cowboys, even if a quarter of all real life cowboys were black.

Also, Jupe and Mary Jo — mostly Mary Jo, what with her ruined face and prosthetic hand — have been eaten up and spit back up by Hollywood. And yet here they are, demanding another time through the spectacle, even if they have to make a deal with potentially a devil to engender one of those bad miracles.

Jupe grew up around an animal and his life was defined by how he distanced himself from the tragedy in his life only to make money from it and propegated the suffering of the horses and the audience that he near willingly fed into a meat grinder. He didn’t learn the lessons that OJ did — you must respect that animal while never looking it right in the eye, never thinking you’re on the same level that it is.

Kind of like, you know, Hollywood.

And isn’t it a nice bow that gets wrapped up as the balloon that caused Gordy’s meltdown is echoed by Jupe’s Kid Sheriff balloon being what blows up the big bad?

Beyond all that, this movie looks incredible, with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema shooting this with large-format IMAX cameras that deliver colors, tones and images we haven’t seen on big screens in years. It looks like a blockbuster should because, well, it is one. Hoytema has made the sky as menacing as the ocean was in Jaws, all while being able to use Kaluuya’s weary eyes to even bigger effect within much smaller shots.

There are so many moments to love in this film — one of my favorites is when the brother and sister quickly touch on his job as being the only important one and she remarks that his life is just her side hustle — and you can read so much into it. For the last few years, we’ve watched the spectacle of reality hosts becoming leaders, of horrific moments that we can only process by describing them with ideas cribbed from TV shows, trapped inside while the world rains blood down on our homes — not as literally as it happens in this film, using an oil-based blood solution originally created for There Will Be Blood and oh boy, there sure is. Isn’t it strange that it takes a summertime blockbuster on the big screen to help us process it?

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