Most of the smarter movies about UFOs/UAPs ask questions like where do they come from, how do they think, how different from us are they. Questions that we humans cannot answer.
Jordan Peele’s new film, Nope, centers around an alien encounter, but like his previous work, this film about the frightening and unfamiliar asks a question we can answer, but just don’t want to: with flames raging everywhere, why have we all become moths?
One of Peele’s many, many talents is that he’s never on a soapbox with the messaging in his work. He’s in it with us, complicit, goading our fractious responses. No character in Nope (and no one watching it) is made to care about how advanced this extraterrestrial is, what technology it uses, how we might communicate with it. The alien is positioned very simply – as a dangerous phenomenon. And the human beings on screen and off are also positioned simply – those who care more about the danger and those who care more about the phenomenon.
The protagonist, OJ Haywood, Jr (Daniel Kaluuya), a horse trainer for films and commercials, is the former. He quickly understands all that needs to be understood about the alien invader – it is an animalistic predator claiming territory.
Everyone around him, however, is the equivalent of a tornado chaser out for thrill, fame or profit, which Peele makes clear by having his alien hide in an ominous cloud and suck up its prey in a dusty swirl.
One of these opportunists is OJ’s estranged sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer) who returns to the family’s ranch after their father, OJ Sr, is killed in a freak accident, which we later learn was the alien. Peele has a great way of playing with the kind of narrative devices necessary to advancing a horror/suspense plot. We overhear a news report of missing hikers, immediately followed by pocket change, keys and other innocuous human detritus raining from the sky. This could have been played just as the tease it is, but Peele then takes devious pleasure in visualizing the urban myth that if you drop a coin from the Empire State Building it would go right through someone’s skull by the time it gets to the street.
Emerald has bounced in from the big city, seeming to care nothing about her father’s death by high-velocity nickel, and rides OJ about his inability to keep the family business afloat. After she catches a glimpse of the alien, she can think only of the fame and fortune a photo of it would bring. No matter how frightened she is by ever-more-dangerous encounters, her motivation remains to capture the monster on film.
This compulsion to turn trauma into personal narrative finds its most striking presentation in another character OJ must deal with, Jupe (Steven Yeun). Jupe was a child actor on a 90’s-era sitcom called Gordy’s Home, and Nope opens on a flashback to the set of the sitcom just after Gordy the chimpanzee has gone berserk and horrifically attacked the other actors. Jupe was the only one who escaped unharmed, and he now owns an Old West-themed tourist attraction near OJs ranch. Jupe has a secret room in his office, a shrine not to his childhood stardom or the show itself, but specifically to the traumatic incident. The scene of Jupe giving OJ and Emerald a tour of the shrine is the most biting satire in the film, and a fascinating comment not only on how an individual can manipulate their own trauma, but how pop culture can: of all the artifacts on display – including the blood-stained shoe of his co-star whose face was chewed off – Jupe holds the most reverence for Chris Kattan’s performance as Gordy in an SNL skit which made a joke of the terrible event.
The incident also left Jupe with the feeling that he has a special rapport with the wild and unpredictable. He’s been buying horses from the financially-strapped OJ and secretly feeding them to the alien predator, prepping for a grand spectacle during which he will expose the alien to an audience. The level of blind arrogance it takes to believe one can train a completely unknowable beast has been an aspect of human civilization since there was human civilization. Yet modern man has continued to level up, from task animals to circuses to nature itself, and now to a beast not even of this world. And instead of imploring a collective “Nope! This one is too dangerous!” we instead encourage the arrogance, our cameras ready.
Movies are more predictable beasts, though, so Jupe learns the same lesson as Siegfried and Roy did with their tiger, finally meeting the fate he escaped – and subsequently became obsessed with – when he was a child.
One of the final lines in the film comes from a Hollywood cinematographer lured to the scene by Emerald, who flatters him into believing he is the only one who can properly document the alien. Before rushing into the jaws of death for the money shot, he says “we don’t deserve the impossible.”
Why? Because we can’t simply stand back and wonder at the mysterious anymore. We must poke it and prod it and try to make it entertain us. Compete to see who will be the first to expose it, turn the wonder into a saleable commodity.
There will always be something that is impossible for humanity. And humanity will never accept that.
Predicted Oscar nominations: 1