Nope is the third feature by the African-American director Jordan Peele. His first feature, Get Out (2017) was a resounding success both critically and at the box office. The second, Us (2019) also made a lot of money worldwide and won many prizes, though mostly for the performance of its lead Lupita Nyong’o. Both films had relatively modest budgets, so there was considerable interest in Nope when it appeared to have a significantly bigger budget and a running time of 130 minutes. The film opened in the US and many other territories in July and in the UK and other major territories in August. It doesn’t seem to have quite reached the box office heights of the first two films but it is still out on release. There has been some criticism of the film as being too crammed with ideas and therefore poorly structured and perhaps incoherent. I haven’t seen Us but now I think I will seek it out. Many, many people have written about Nope, but I’ll try to engage with some of the criticism and deal with my own reading.
All three of Peele’s films count has horror but both Nope and Get Out qualify as SF – speculative fiction or science fiction. Nope is a ‘contact with aliens’ narrative. Often such narratives are about contact made by national/international bodies which have been monitoring an alien presence or which have taken over when an individual or a family have been threatened. In this case the alien targets two small communities in a Californian valley and the narrative deals with their response – the authorities don’t make an appearance. The general reaction to the film has been that Peele has ‘taken on’ the idea of the Summer blockbuster and in particular Steven Spielberg and his two major 1970s films Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The Western theme park also reminds me of Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973) in which SF/horror is built around the thrills of taking part in a gunfight. I did see each of those films on release in the 1970s but I lost interest in Spielberg after the early 1980s so I didn’t register anything about his films while watching Nope. Reading reviews, I can see why those links are obvious to mainstream Hollywood fans. But I was wrapped up thinking about the history of American cinema and the way in which it excised Black Americans from its seminal genre, the Western. I need to explain.
‘Nope!’ is frequently uttered in the film by O.J. Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya). He’s a horse wrangler, supplying horses for film and TV shoots. In a brief prologue, we see his father falling from his horse and dying in what appears to be a freak storm of some kind. It is only later that we realise what killed him. O.J. takes over the business, but things go badly and are not helped by the arrival of his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). If O.J. is quiet, thoughtful and taciturn, Emerald is exactly the opposite. I have to confess that I could hardly understand a word Emerald said, partly because she speaks so quickly, partly, no doubt, that I am simply not used to the forms of language used by young African-Americans, especially those like Keke Palmer who appear to have a background in the music industry. Since Nope is filled with action, especially in its second half, this isn’t too much of a problem, though I might have missed some important information. Fortunately, I did know the story told by Emerald at a film shoot. The Haywoods are direct descendants of the Black jockey who rode the horse photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1887. Muybridge found a way to use photographic slides to present the motion of the horse in one of the first presentations of ‘moving images’, so as Emerald suggests the Haywoods have ‘skin in the game’ in the film industry. Peele’s point is clear, the name of the horse was preserved along with Muybridge, but the identity of the jockey was forgotten.
Because the business has not been making money, O.J. has had to make plans to sell his horses and some of them are already on loan to his neighbour further down the valley who runs a Western theme park, a ‘frontier town’ with various attractions. This business belongs to Ricky Park (Steven Yuen), a former child star on TV whose career was curtailed by an incident involving an attack on cast members by a chimpanzee during a live show. The theme park becomes an important setting for the struggles with alien attacker in the latter stages of the narrative.
I understand why the film is criticised for being ‘uneven’ and ‘confusing’. The Western theme park suggests a possible satire on US TV, evangelical shows and so on that does work in the narrative but not in obvious ways. The discourse about the absence of African-Americans in mainstream Hollywood Westerns is emphasised primarily by the inclusion of a film poster inside the Haywood’s ranch house. This is for Buck and the Preacher (US 1972), a Western made by Harry Belafonte’s company, directed by Sidney Poitier and featuring the two best-known Black stars of the period. The poster gets its own credit in Nope, alongside Duel at Diablo (US 1966), a Western in which Poitier plays a horse wrangler working for the US cavalry. I’m sure there are more references that I will find when I get hold of a DVD. Virtually the last shot of the action in the film is, I think, intended as a nod towards Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (Italy 1964). Nope is also very much about filmmaking and particularly about photography. Once O.J. and Emerald have realised that the alien is watching them, they set about dealing with the intrusion. Typically Emerald sees the possibility of making money by capturing images of the alien, while O.J. is more concerned with outwitting the alien and saving himself and others from attacks. Emerald’s quest for images brings in a tech wizard, Angel (Brandon Perea), to set up surveillance cameras. It also brings to the ranch a maverick documentary photographer, Antlers Holst (!) (Michael Wincott) who operates a giant hand-cranked camera shooting on IMAX film. This is a brilliant idea, bringing together the first movie cameras and one of the latest. The reason for the hand-cranking is an integral part of the narrative.
Tied to the whole idea of looking/watching (scopophilia) is the design of the alien a creature based on the iris in the camera lens. I noted in the credits that several Indian animators/FX designers were used on Nope and I’m wondering if there were also Montreal FX people since the Quebec Tax funding scheme also part-funded the film. This in turn made me think of Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival (US-Canada 2016), a film which has aliens presented in a carefully thought-through way. Jordan Peele’s alien is, in one sense, a typical Hollywood ‘monster’ but also fits the discourse around ‘looking’ that the narrative develops on several levels.
The IMAX connection is carried through to the film’s production with much of it shot on 65mm IMAX film, I think. Personally, I’m not a fan of IMAX. It’s the wrong shape for me and I prefer a well-presented CinemaScope ratio film. I also wonder if the IMAX screen would be too big for this kind of narrative? I gave up IMAX some time ago after watching Batman Begins (2005) and Star Trek (2009). I watched Nope on a large screen on which I’ve previously watched ‘Scope films but it was presented in 1.85:1 and even then not filling the frame vertically.
I was intrigued by Nope and after struggling with the first half, I became fully engaged with the narrative once alien contact was confirmed. I look forward to studying the film in more detail and finding all the things I missed.