Nope is a science fiction neo-Western horror comedy and director Jordan Peele’s third film. Ostensibly about a UFO appearing over a family’s Los Angeles County ranch, Nope explores the irresistible draw of “spectacle” and exploitation through the lens of what feels like a creature feature similar to Jaws (1975). In interviews, Peele has said the inspiration for the film came from watching events play out on TV and social media during the pandemic.
The bleakness of 2020 inspired Peele to write Nope during that traumatic, forgotten haze of lockdown amidst an endless cycle of grim, inescapable tragedy. “We were going through so much,” he tells me. “So much of what this world was experiencing was this overload of spectacle, and kind of a low point of our addiction to spectacle.”Gerrick D. Kennedy, Jordan Peele and Keke Palmer Look to the Sky
Detailed plot summary (no spoilers)
The Haywoods have a family legacy in Hollywood, as they say the unnamed jockey used in the famous moving pictures of a man on a horse was their ancestor. Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), a ranch owner in the Agua Dulce area of Los Angeles County, is killed in a freak accident when a nickel falling from the sky goes through his eye and into his brain. The ranch is inherited by Otis Sr.’s children, Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer), who struggle to keep it afloat.
Six months after Otis Sr. dies, OJ and Em notice strange occurrences at the ranch. Electricity goes in and out, and their horses appear to react to an unseen presence. They discover that a UFO has been appearing at their ranch, suctioning up organic matter and then spitting out inorganic matter back to Earth. The latter was the cause of Otis Sr.’s death.
The Haywoods’ neighbor is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who exploits a highly publicized traumatic event (“The Gordy Incident”) he survived to make money with “Jupiter’s Claim,” a Western-themed attraction where he hosts live shows. Jupe wants to buy the Haywoods’ ranch from them. When he discovers the UFO, he creates a live show about the monster/alien.
OJ and Em believe that they may be able to exploit the presence of the UFO to get enough money to keep their ranch (and more) by capturing evidence and selling it to a reputable party such as Oprah. They invest in surveillance equipment and with the help of electronic store employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and famous wildlife cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), OJ and Em try to film the UFO, which they come to believe is an animal they name “Jean Jacket.”
Warning: spoilers ahead
OJ lures Jean Jacket away while Em escapes to Jupiter’s Claim on a motorcycle. She releases one of the attraction’s oversized balloon characters into the sky. The alien/monster attempts to eat the balloon, which explodes and seemingly kills Jean Jacket. Em successfully utilizes one of the theme park’s analog photo machines to capture evidence of Jean Jacket before it dies. OJ, Em, Angel, and OJ’s favorite horse, Lucky, survive to sell their story as the media arrive.
What’s a bad miracle?
The main theme in Nope is how spectacles can capture our attention in a bad way. We can become addicted to gawking at a spectacle to the extent that it hurts us or leads to exploiting others. We can also be drawn to exploit our own trauma to create a spectacle for profit. In Nope, OJ’s response to the spectacle of Jean Jacket is contrasted with Jupe’s.
While OJ immediately recognizes Jean Jacket as a wild animal that is dangerous and needs to be respected, Jupe believes that Jean Jacket is a spaceship and can be exploited into a fun show at his theme park. This leads to over 40 people dying at Jupe’s “Star Lasso Experience.” By understanding how animals work and that they “have rules,” OJ discovers that Jean Jacket is drawn to people who are looking at it. When he looks away from Jean Jacket, OJ is able to escape the creature.
There are several visual clues that viewership is one of Peele’s major themes in Nope. OJ’s horse, Lucky, reacts poorly on set after OJ warns everyone not to look him in the eyes. The light that makes Lucky go off looks like a giant eyeball. The cameras on the set of Gordy’s Home look like blank faces with eyes. Later on, Jupe creates alien dolls to sell at the Star Lasso Experience that look just like the cameras on his old show. Jupe also names the aliens the “Viewers.”
In the third act, OJ recalls Lucky’s incident. This memory helps OJ realize that he should not look at Jean Jacket. He averts his eyes, closes his car door, and says “nope.” This is the exact opposite approach than what Jupe takes. Jupe is too mesmerized by the spectacle to help himself. OJ and Jupe’s different fates convey that looking at a spectacle is a trap. This point is also shown by Antlers (the famed cinematographer) and the nameless TMZ reporter, characters who are shown to be so desperate to gaze at spectacle (and in the case of the TMZ reporter, desperate to capture it on film and render it exploitable) that it costs them their lives.
Jupe and the guests at the Star Lasso Experience are sucked up by Jean Jacket and shown being consumed in a claustrophobic scene set inside the creature’s body. Peele says that the upsetting “digestion” scene is meant to mimic the audience “digesting” the movie. He points out that part of the fear in this scene comes from not being alone, but being part of a group of people who are all in peril, who are all screaming for help.
There were many factors in the construction of what we call the Jean Jacket interior. And it went through several iterations. But I think the idea for me was getting across the most nightmarish environment possible, and involving the realization that being pulled up into this U.F.O. is not, in fact, an ascendance into a conversation or a negotiation with an alien species. It is a straight shot into digestion.Jordan Peele, Jordan Peele Says There May Be More ‘Nope’ Stories to Come
Jupe’s shrine to ‘Gordy’s Home’
A confusing aspect for some viewers was the backstory for Steven Yeun’s character Ricky “Jupe” Park. Park was a former child actor who survived an infamous and terrifying incident on the set of the successful sitcom Gordy’s Home in which the chimpanzee animal actor playing “Gordy” was startled by a balloon popping and reacted violently. One coworker’s face was permanently disfigured by the attack, and at least one other worker was savagely beaten. The incident ends with Gordy finding young Ricky (played by Jacob Kim) hiding under a table. The two costars share a fist bump before Gordy is shot dead. A gutting detail only people who know ASL will have picked up on is that when Gordy turns to Jupe after maiming his coworker, he signs “what happened family.”
Jupe remembers this incident fondly, proudly displaying a photo of “the first exploding fist bump” in his office among the rest of his “Gordy Incident” memorabilia. One interpretation of this character is that the childhood experience left Jupe with a sense that he has been blessed by a special kind of survivor’s luck. In reality, Jupe didn’t survive Gordy’s rampage because he has any special qualities, but because Gordy seemed to calm down by the time he found Jupe hiding under a table. However, Jupe seems to believe that the fist bump offered by Gordy means that he is an inherently good animal who wouldn’t hurt him (Jupe).
Jupe’s belief in his luck negatively impacts how he treats those around him. He doesn’t learn to respect wild animals from the Gordy incident. He learns that spectacle can be exploited for money and notoriety. Eventually, Jupe offers up himself, his wife, his kids, and 35 strangers to Jean Jacket because he doesn’t recognize the animal as dangerous.
The invisibility of black people in Hollywood
Another theme in Nope is the invisibility of black people in Hollywood. This begins during the filming of the commercial that hires Haywood Horses. Otis Sr. and Jr. are interchangeable to the production on set, with the director asking, “Where’s the other guy? The senior guy.” When Em shows up she proudly tells production about her ancestor, the black jockey featured in The Horse in Motion, who despite being the first movie star is completely nameless in history.
We’ve got the first movie star of all time. And it’s a black man we don’t know. We haven’t looked.Jordan Peele, Jordan Peele and Keke Palmer Look to the Sky
Later on, when Em is in Jupe’s office, she realizes that he is a former child star. Recognizing one of his former costars, referred to as “3D,” she asks Jupe what happened to him. Jupe seems to have not thought about 3D in years, despite the fact that he is still in touch with other former coworkers such as Mary Jo Elliott, who attends the Star Lasso Experience.
Other fun details in ‘Nope’:
- In the scene introducing Haywood ranch, a reporter on the radio can be heard talking about some missing hikers. They are likely earlier victims of Jean Jacket. When OJ first encounters Jean Jacket and hears screams, it’s likely the hikers trapped in Jean Jacket’s stomach.
- The chapter titles are “Ghost,” “Clover,” “Gordy,” “Lucky,” and “Jean Jacket.” Each corresponds to a different animal.
- In the third act, Emerald wears green (emeralds are green) and OJ wears orange (orange juice is orange).
- It’s hard to miss Bonnie Clayton’s (a white actress played by Donna Mills) look of fear when she is introduced to a black man named “OJ.” She is obviously thinking about OJ Simpson, whose car chase and subsequent trial was one of the biggest spectacles of all time.
- Jupe is trying to buy Haywood ranch. When he tells Em to feel free to look around his office, he says “Su casa es mi casa,” a reversal of the Spanish idiom that now translates to “Your house is my house.”
- When Steven Yeun says, “What if I told you that in about an hour you’ll leave here feeling different?” there is exactly one hour left in the film.
- Scorpion King was the first job that Otis Sr. took Otis Jr. on. OJ wears his old Scorpion King sweatshirt through the third act of Nope.
- The Gordy’s Home series is set in Cape Canaveral and seems to involve a patriarch who works at NASA. Gordy is shown wearing an intentionally morbid shirt that anachronistically includes the doomed space flight Columbia, which crashed in 2003 and killed all seven astronauts aboard.
- On Jupe’s desk you can see a large pair of scissors that were previously used in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019).
- The TMZ reporter was voiced by Nicolas Cage.
- The director of the commercial using Haywood Horses is played by Osgood Perkins, the son of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins. Perkins also wrote and directed the horror movies The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015) and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016). He previously worked with Jordan Peele when he wrote and directed the “You May Also Like” episode of The Twilight Zone in 2020.
- Peele says he was inspired by films about “addiction to spectacle” such as King Kong (1933), Jurassic Park (1993), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Signs (2002), and The Wizard of Oz (1939).
- Nope is the first horror movie to be filmed in IMAX.