This article contains potential spoilers for Nope.
Sci-fi westerns now have a distinguished pedigree. Thematically, alien invaders offer a fresh challenge to the myth of the American frontier, posing the question, Who’s the real invader here? But let’s face it: The biggest draw has to be the rich aesthetics of hurling futuristic technology at the parched beauty of the American wilderness, whether it’s Marty McFly bursting onto the scene in his shimmering DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future III, or a muzzled Max Rockatansky leapfrogging from truck to truck in the chaotic desert convoy of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
But what if you added horror tropes into the mix, especially our appetite for lethal entertainment? Think specifically of our indefatigable ambition to go viral, even if it comes at the cost of capitalizing on bloodshed and tragedy. If sci-fi westerns often raise the question concerning the true alien invader, Nope asks, Who’s the real consumer here and who’s actually being consumed?
Anyone who’s ever made goofy faces at a baby knows there’s a fine line between a laugh and a scream. At his best, Peele uses his films to make faces that delight and terrify in equal measure. He pulled this off to an exquisite degree in Get Out. Recall Allison Williams in a white tracksuit, her hair pulled taut in a ponytail and her ears protruding impishly. She sits on her suburban bed with her angular features illumined by the spectral glow of her laptop, munching on dry Froot Loops. Slowly, she lifts a tall glass of milk and sucks vigorously on the straw. Despite this banal backdrop, there’s something distinctly predatory in her action, like a female spider devouring her mate during coitus. From her earbuds, we hear the bouncy strains of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.” It’s a piece of American surrealism on par with Jeffrey Beaumont fishing a dismembered human ear out of a meadow in Blue Velvet, or Rosemary Wodehouse gorging herself on raw liver in her posh Manhattan apartment.
As with Peele’s other films, Nope is an expert pop culture pastiche that strikes all the right disorienting notes. Witness the inspired use of Corey Hart’s absurd synth-pop anthem, “Sunglasses at Night,” which sounds vaguely sinister when it’s slowed to a crawl by a power outage. (Speaking of tunes, you can also keep score of your musical street cred by tracking the abundant band t-shirts on display in the film. Rage Against the Machine? Check. Whoa—Mr. Bungle! Wait, is that Jesus Lizard?)
Since Nope is a meditation on the nature of cinema, as well as an interrogation of our entertainment habits, three vignettes serve to capture the film’s mood. First, the trashed set of a sitcom filmed before a live studio audience. A young girl is on the ground, her face blocked by a couch. We survey the wreckage amid the eerie calm that descends after a disaster. The remaining audience members cower in their seats. Above it all, the cheerful glow of the “Applause” sign. We hear ferocious animal noises as a chimp with bloody hands shambles into frame and turns its blazing eyes on the viewer.
Second, an Asian man in the amphitheater of a western-themed amusement park speaks into a microphone and promises his modest audience the show of a lifetime. A horse stands in an enclosure, bait for something as yet unseen. From the clouds emerges an elegant shape that resembles a cross between a massive parachute and an enormous balloon. For all we know, it could be an alien vessel or something out of the book of Ezekiel. The horse won’t budge, so the entity sets its sights on the audience, sucking them into its maw. We’re granted a brief glimpse of the screaming victims being digested in the creature’s slimy innards, a crowd devoured by the source of its own entertainment.
Finally, a TMZ reporter thrown from his electric motorcycle begs his rescuers to retrieve his camera instead of tending to his shattered body. Fittingly, his face is hidden beneath a reflective helmet that mirrors his surroundings like an impassive lens. The last scene it captures is of its owner being swallowed.
When the movie begins, a hail of personal effects rain down from the sky, causing the death of Otis Haywood, Sr., owner of Haywood Ranch. We get a shot of a house key embedded in his horse’s flanks before he falls to the ground bloodied and unconscious. Otis later succumbs to his wounds in the hospital with his son, Otis Jr. (OJ) by his side. Was this a freak accident? Debris from an airplane? Or is something more sinister going on?
Together with his charismatic but flighty sister, Emerald, OJ tries to keep the family business going. Peele’s knack for capturing racist microaggressions remains as acidic as ever. When OJ introduces himself at a commercial shoot, his caucasion employers greet his name with incredulity, “OJ. Really?” He receives all this with a look of tired resignation. Given the movie’s preoccupation with the public appetite for scandal and sensation, it’s a clever maneuver, putting the audience in the awkward position of not wanting to make assumptions about a name that clearly serves as a thematic emblem for a very public scandal involving a Black man. As Emerald makes clear in a well-rehearsed speech at the same event, the Haywood family traces their lineage all the way back to one of the first images in cinematic history: a Black horse jockey who serves as a reminder of Hollywood’s racist legacy by remaining largely anonymous. Pointing to her distant relative, Emerald reminds her audience that, when it comes to cinema, her family literally has “skin in the game.”
Lacking his late father’s personal touch, OJ watches as the contracts dry up and he sells the occasional horse to the amusement park down the road in an effort to keep the ranch operational. Though he suspects the horses are being used in some kind of odd sideshow, he soon learns that they’re functioning as live bait. He also suspects that whatever’s going on in the amphitheater is somehow related to the phenomenon that claimed his father’s life. But when OJ and Emerald get a glimpse of what’s hidden behind a stationary cloud near their ranch, the siblings snap into immediate action: They go on a shopping spree at their local electronics store, buying up surveillance equipment. Soon they recruit a small crew to boost the production value of their endeavor. Michael Wincott makes an inspired cameo here and it’s great to hear the raspy glory of his voice back in action. This ragged group have fame and fortune in their sights and they plan on seizing them by capitalizing on the monster in their midst.
Nope opens with Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth on you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” Fitting words for a film that reflects a world where exploitation is the only true source of unity. In 1996, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest imagined a “lethally entertaining film” that infantilizes its audience to the point of mortal neglect. Would your average citizen be able to resist such a temptation? The characters in Peele’s film are much more aggressive, forsaking the comforts of their couches for the viral promises offered by carnage and tragedy. Consider the fact that the first impulse for many of us is to aim our phone in the direction of trouble, rather than lend a helping hand. Forget loving your neighbor; ours is a world reduced to nothing but consumers.
However, since we’re all on the menu, it’s increasingly difficult to tell who’s the consumer and who’s being consumed. We’re all just props in someone else’s footage. Take a glance around if you’re in a public space. Someone’s got a camera on you. Maybe you’re just human scenery. Maybe your fashion choice is occasion for a withering joke replete with clever stickers and razor sharp pop culture references. Either way, you’ve been sucked into the maw; you’re being digested. If I slug someone in the face at a slushy stand or have the courtesy to get hit by a car while on camera, I just might help someone else monetize my suffering.
In this sense, Nope puts me in mind of Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, a phantasmagorical tabloid ride through America’s insatiable appetite for lethal entertainment. In the film, a reporter interviews a group of teenagers about the couple responsible for the protracted killing spree. The response: “I don’t condone mass murder, but if I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickie and Mallory!” Similarly, Nope’s characters might say that they don’t want to see anyone get hurt, but if they do, they’d like to film and upload it immediately. Nothing personal. It’s just business. (In the “This is not The Onion” category, one of Nope’s most vocal celebrity critics is YouTube star Logan Paul, a guy who once added a victim of suicide to the list of enticements for his channel. Abominable filth indeed.)
In popular parlance, “nope” is shorthand for a visceral combination of revulsion and denial. It’s what you might blurt out if you spot a candy colored clown signaling to you from the window of an abandoned house. Same story if you come across an old shed in the woods with “Free Hugs” spray painted on the door. It’s also an apt word for a cultural moment that consists in a barrage of seemingly insurmountable calamities: persistent racism, police brutality, mass shootings, a global pandemic with no end in sight, the disastrous effects of global warming. Do we just say “nope” and keep scrolling? Or do we go one step further and try to capitalize on the monster(s) in our midst? But who’s the monster if we’re all eating each other?
Pascal once said, “We run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing.” With Nope, Peele joins the similarly mordant Don’t Look Up in showing us that the abyss itself has now become our greatest source of entertainment. Pascal was describing spiritual apathy, but we’re well beyond that now. A culture that works overtime to convert our greatest threats into sources of entertainment has crossed the rubicon from apathy to despair. In Nope, OJ and Emerald have to destroy the monster instead of monetizing it. Maybe it’s time for us to do the same. A good start would be to move beyond consumers, users, followers, entertainers, and influencers, and to rediscover neighbors.