On New Years Eve in 2017, former social media influencer/semi-professional boxer and current WWE superstar Logan Paul visited Aokigahara near the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, also unflatteringly known as “suicide forest”. There, he, camping with a few friends, found a recently deceased corpse and decided to film it to upload for his many followers on YouTube. The video was a sensation, attracting 6.3 million views in the first 24 hours after being uploaded.
“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.”
Ever since his early days at Key & Peele, Jordan Peele (writer & director of Get Out) has always been a master of crafting universes. He builds worlds with narratives like a magician. He distracts you with the story but much of the time the point of the movie is something completely different. Nope, also written and directed by Peele, is no different.
Nope starts by introducing us to the Haywood Ranch. Created by Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), the ranch is home to many wild horses that he trains and tends to so they can be used as extras on various television programs. Helping him are his brooding son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah), and his daughter Em (Keke Palmer, Hustlers). While tending to a horse, a nickel falls from the sky and kills Otis Sr. upon impact, devastating his son while also arousing his suspicion. Elsewhere, former child actor Jupe, who laid witness to a traumatic event as a child on the set of a television show, when a chimpanzee wildly attacked three of his co-stars before being shot to death right in front of him, now runs a carnival called “Jupiter’s Claim”.
Six months after the death of Otis Sr., one of the Haywood Ranch’s horses goes wild on the set of a television show and kicks one of the crewmembers after being startled. Desperate to save his fathers business, OJ agrees to sell some of his horses to Jupe as Em, who longs to one day be a famous star herself, pushes OJ to sell the ranch entirely. After returning to the ranch, another of their horses loses control and then disappears. OJ sees the source; a UFO saucer, so he and his sister decide to do the only logical thing they can think of; buy a bunch of recording equipment and document the first UFO encounter.
This singular narrative drives the rest of the film. Only two other characters are given meaningful screen time; Angel (Brandon Perea, The OA), a tech salesman at the store OJ and Em purchase their film equipment who helps them install the cameras at their house and ultimately becomes a part of their scheme to record the UFO, and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, Westworld), a famous director obsessively seeking to capture the perfect shot.
At first glance, Nope suffers from a detached narrative. We have no idea why OJ is so obsessed with filming this. We don’t know who these UFOs are or what they want. The film isn’t too interested in answering those questions. In fact, from a character standpoint, the movie is carried by Em, who lights up every scene she is in, and whose motivations are at the forefront of every one of her actions, and Angel who also has tangible and relatable motivations. He also adds much needed comic relief at certain points of the movie. Kaluuya, as talented as any young actor in modern Hollywood, plays OJ with such reservation you almost have to feel it’s intentional. As if losing his father took any sense of excitement or passion from him. As good as Peele is at creating worlds, and using narratives to symmetrically tell two stories, you wish he’d spend a little more time on the characters that fill them.
I find it imperative to point out that it is entirely possible that all of this is intentional. Peele didn’t tell us these details because they do not matter. Why should the audience care about the origin or the motivations of this nameless UFO? The main characters certainly don’t. They don’t fear death, or consider calling for help. All they see is the spectacle. And maybe that’s the point? In today’s world authenticity and substance are almost disincentivized. If you can put together 180 characters, take a picture, or film a 12 second video that get you the desired engagement, the substance does not matter. Social media and influencer culture are eating away at our society. Slowly but surely, the digital world is becoming reality. It’s a dystopian form of capitalism where clicks are currency and our species sacrifices its humanity hoping to get a piece. Near the end of Nope, a nameless TMZ reporter is about to be engulfed by the UFO. He is seconds away from death, yet as OJ drives away to safety we hear him yell, “take the picture!”
The problem with seeking a spectacle is that it is a roller coaster you can’t get off of. Once you’ve decided that fame is your currency, you’ve lost the battle. One day you’ll find yourself in a forest, see a man who just tragically took his own life, and see it as an opportunity to profit. At least, that’s how Peele feels. Em and OJ survive and are “heroes” because they find the light at the end of the tunnel and stop mindlessly pursuing the spectacle. They have each other, and hopefully taking solace in that can help them move forward and live a more normal life. As we approach the end of 2022, how many of us can say the same?
Nope was released in theaters on July 22, and on PVOD platforms on August 25.