Spin-Off: Why You Need To Say Yes To Nope

In this column, Gayle Sequeira discusses themes, trends and trivial bits of information she's fixated on from fantasy and pop culture
Spin-Off: Why You Need To Say Yes To Nope

Nope is exactly the kind of exhilarating, stomach-flipping spectacle that it indicts, a cautionary fable about the dangers of looking, composed of immaculately crafted images that make it impossible to look away. In creating a society where reality is less interesting than its filmed version, director Jordan Peele unravels the uncomfortable cultural insistence that intimate hurts be put on public display. In providing tantalising glimpses of a predatory creature that kills when looked at, he simultaneously heightens the audience's anticipation to a feverish pitch while also mocking it. The addiction to spectacle will kill us all, we'll just be too busy livestreaming it to care. 

That Nope is about our twisted relation to the media we consume is hinted at in its opening minutes, when a chimp sets off on a bloodied frenzy on the soundstage of a sitcom, pummeling the cast senseless while the 'applause' light flashes in the background, the punchline to a sick joke that will one day be performed on SNL. The massacre's sole survivor, Jupe (Steven Yeun) has, many years later, converted his trauma into a glib narrative to be performed, though rote repetition hasn't dulled its sting. Even so, it's easy to understand how the positive reinforcement provided by the spectacle makes him feel special. If everyone's watching, surely that means you have something worth showcasing? It's an idea that casts Jupe's eyes heavenwards, even as his downfall remains imminent. Also haunted by their Hollywood past are OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Em (Keke Palmer), whose ranch the alien begins to stalk. Peele initially only permits partially obscured views of it through clouds and the wooden slats of a barn, which writer Adam Nayman has likened to the effect produced by an old-school kinetoscope. As the sibling's quest to photograph the elusive creature becomes harder, it transforms into a metaphor for filmmaking, the pursuit of the perfect shot. Along the way, it also counters and rectifies Hollywoods's tradition of erasing the contribution of Black artists.

Then again, each of Peele's three films consider new ways of seeing, through characters who are either suddenly, and violently, confronted with different perspectives, those who remain blind to their possibilities, and those who conspire to pass off stolen viewpoints as original. In Get Out (2017), an incisive look at how the Black experience is commodified and packaged, an art dealer seeks a literal fresh pair of eyes so he may better his portfolio, eyes he plans to seize from a photographer (Kaluuya). 

Peele's sophomore feature, Us (2019), in which Americans must contend with the idea that their doppelgangers exist, and are rising up in revolt, is more opaque, packed with dense layers of meaning that don't lend themselves to a straightforward explanation. Even so, the chasm between the relatively well-off suburban housewife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) and her embittered double, Red (Nyong'o again), doomed to a sub-human existence underground, is pointed in its significance. In presenting characters who look identical but have experienced life's cruelties in vastly different measures, the director asks us to imagine how we might have turned out like had our circumstances been slightly altered. What would it feel like to grapple desperately for the better tomorrow that others take for granted?

Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide (Nyong'o) in Us (2019).
Red (Lupita Nyong'o) and Adelaide (Nyong'o) in Us (2019).

Peele offers up another pair of contrasting figures in Nope's OJ and Jupe. One is attuned to the nuances of animal behaviour, and is perceptive enough to make allowances for it. The other has refashioned his childhood trauma into the blinkers of self-centeredness, unable to see past any other perspective but his own. OJ, recently shaped by a violently unforeseeable tragedy, survives because he studies the alien enough to be able to predict its triggers. Jupe, who attributes his survival of the Gordy massacre to innate specialness rather than pure dumb luck, attempts to fit the alien into his predictable patterns, in ignorance of how it operates. "You were chosen," he murmurs, according himself a special status in the divine scheme of things. But anyone paying attention to the film's opening text, taken from the Biblical book of Nahum, could've told him this God isn't as benevolent as he assumes. Jupe might have escaped a chimp's rampage, a single upright shoe from that day representing both terror and trophy, but it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops. OJ, on the other hand, witnessed his father being killed by a falling coin engraved with the cruelly ironic phrase 'In God We Trust'. He doesn't seem likely to have as generous an amount of faith in the unknown. 

If there isn't a word for 'bad miracle', as OJ describes it, I'm inclined to volunteer 'plague'. The Biblical plagues of Egypt, in which darkness shrouded the land for three days and swarms of locusts devoured every last crop, were miraculous occurrences, sure, just the kind that would be met with fear instead of rejoicing, meted out as punishment to a barbaric Pharaoh. The rivers of blood gushing out of the Haywood's home visually resemble another of these plagues, in which the Nile and its waters ran blood red.

There's great danger in spectacle, but power too. The echoes of this Biblical sentiment reverberate across Nope, particularly when it invokes the story of Animal Locomotion, "the very first assembly of photographs used to create a motion picture". Its photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, is known to film historians more than a century later, but the identity of the Black jockey in the footage, described as the first "movie star" has faded out of the collective memory of an industry that has positioned its viewfinder elsewhere. The Haywoods, his descendants, understand more than anyone the importance of being noticed. Muybridge re-emerges in Nope as TMZ journalist Ryder Muybridge (Devon Graye), whose fixation with spectacle even in the face of death becomes a comedic footnote, a far cry from his namesake's archival .

OJ racing across his vast ranch on horseback during the film's climactic battle with the alien recalls footballer and murder suspect OJ Simpson's two-hour-long car chase across LA in 1994, as residents enthralled by the spectacle chanted his name. It's also a throwback to his ancestor's pursuits all those years ago, with one crucial difference — he documents the spectacle instead of becoming part of it. In pulling up the hood of his clothing to avoid eye contact with the alien, he covers himself up instead of putting himself on display. It's significant that Em is the one who succeeds in getting that long-coveted shot and not the team's hired cinematographer (Michael Wincott). The siblings seize ownership of their experiences instead of letting history nudge them out of the frame. It's a striking parallel to a scene in Get Out, in which Kaluuya's character escapes his restraints, in part, by picking cotton from a chair. The same action that historically brought his enslaved ancestors death is now what spares his life. 

OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) flees from the alien in Nope (2022).
OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) flees from the alien in Nope (2022).

It's telling that those chasing the alien in Nope include two Black siblings and a Latino man (Brandon Perea), people who belong to communities that Hollywood has traditionally overlooked, wary of the clouds even as they clamour for their moment in the sun. Misguided as it is, even Jupe's insistence on directing the spectacle makes sense, given that he was, for so long as a child actor and as a Korean in a Caucasian-dominated sitcom, the object of an intrusive gaze rather than its purveyor. His lifestyle as a cowboy, a role traditionally dominated by White Americans, is another way of reclaiming and reshaping the narrative. 

By the end, that's all anyone can ever do. Em and OJ eventually get the shot they wanted. What happens next is unknown but it's clear the siblings will tell their story on their terms. They will ensure their names are known. They will cement their legacy, an idea lent weight by Em's fourth-wall break and direct stare into camera as she wordlessly dares viewers to become witnesses to the spectacle she's captured, to acknowledge her in the way her ancestor was denied. In granting the audience a Hollywood happy ending, Peele finally concedes that the costs of chasing spectacle are high, but then again, so are the rewards.

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