How Jordan Peele's Us And Nope Pay Homage To This Steven Spielberg Monster Movie Classic

Though he's only directed three films, Jordan Peele's cineliterate, socially conscious horror movies yield myriad Easter eggs and sometimes call attention to his influences outright. In "Nope," for instance, there's a motorcycle slide that had many "Akira" fans nodding along, thinking, "I understood that reference" (a quote that is itself a movie reference, but let's just roll with that like bike wheels). The original "Akira" motorcycle was actually inspired by "Tron," so it's as if Peele and his forebears just have their arms linked in a "4,000-mile-long chain" of film homages à la the Hands Across America commercial in "Us."

Like the movie brats of the 1970s, the Oscar-winning "Get Out" writer and director is part of a continuum of auteurs who wear their hyper-referentiality as a badge of honor. Art begets art, and Peele begets "Jaws" references. Steven Spielberg's 1975 film gave rise to a new kind of spectacle, the summer blockbuster, so it should come as no surprise that — as Peele goes into blockbuster mode for a story about the human and animal cost of spectacle — his third film would be looking to "Jaws" for inspiration.

Even before "Nope," however, Peele couldn't hide his love for "Jaws." In fact, there are several callbacks to Spielberg's classic that crept into Peele's second film as well. Saddle up on your horses, starting now, for the spectacle of "Us" and "Nope" spoilers.

A beach prologue and a Jaws shirt

"Us" begins with a TV commercial asking the audience, "What has 12 million eyes, 192 million teeth?" It sounds like the description of a monster, maybe a Lovecraftian shark in the Junji Ito vein, but the answer, per the title, is, "Us." We're the monsters. They're our subterranean doppelgängers, America's red underbelly coming to get us like a bloodthirsty Great White.

From there, "Us" follows Young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry), as she leaves her dad's side in an amusement park and goes down to the beach at night, similar to how Chrissie (Susan Backlinie), the first "Jaws" victim, breaks away from the campfire to go swimming. The waves crash and lightning flashes over them ominously, but the danger for Young Adelaide comes from back on land, as she wanders into a hall of mirrors in a funhouse that beckons with the words, "Find yourself."

Years later, we meet Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) all grown up as a family woman. Her son Jason (Evan Alex) perks up when the beach is mentioned, and he happens to wear a shirt advertising Peele's love for "Jaws." Spielberg is thanked in the closing credits and Peele acknowledged his influence in an interview, saying that one of the first things he did when he finished the script for "Us" was to reach out to Spielberg and beg him for permission to put that shirt in the movie.

A son in peril and a flotation device

When "Us" returns Adelaide to the scene of her crime at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the funhouse name has changed and it's now broad daylight, which makes it look more like "Jaws" when Adelaide starts scanning the beach the way police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) did in Spielberg's film. Adelaide experiences the same panic over Jason's whereabouts as Brody did when he realized the shark was bearing down on his son in an estuary.

After Adelaide's doppelgänger, Red — also played by Nyong'o — shows up with the evil Tethered version of Adelaide's family, her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke), finds himself out on a boat with his doppelgänger, Abraham. He gets the drop on him with a baseball bat, knocking him into the water, but Abraham's leg catches on a life preserver rope, pulling it in after him.

This life preserver is now attached to the scene's resident "monster," Abraham, the way the flotation barrels were attached to the shark in "Jaws." It soon comes bobbing back up to the surface, indicating the unseen monster's presence like the flotation barrels did. Even after the jaws of "Us" close, so to speak, it's not the last time we'll see Peele doing a throwback to the barrel trick.

A night swim and a split diopter shot

When Gabe falls into the water with Abraham, it enables Peele and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis to frame him the way Spielberg and cinematographer Bill Butler did with Chrissie during her doomed night swim at the beginning of "Jaws." The later line, "Boats are done; I'm done with boats," takes on a meaning comparable to the immortal "Jaws" quote, "We're gonna need a bigger boat," as Gabe uses it to communicate that the boat in question is not a viable option. With that, "Us" abandons the water route, but not the "Jaws" playbook.

At the end of the movie, as Red gets to monologuing like the cartoon villain from "The Incredibles," we see her face writ large in a split diopter shot with Adelaide behind it. This kind of shot, which employs a special lens to keep the background and foreground in focus at the same time, is a signature "Jaws" move. Spielberg's film uses multiple split diopter shots, most memorably in the aforementioned beach scene with Brody.

An unseen, territorial animal with a gaping mouth

There are parallels to other classic films besides "Jaws" in "Us," and Peele also thanks Paul Thomas Anderson in the credits and takes a page from his "Inherent Vice" soundtrack and "Magnolia" book of biblical references when he works in both the Minnie Riperton song "Les Fleurs" and a recurring reference to Jeremiah 11:11. "Nope" has a line of scripture, too; it opens with a quote from Nahum 3:6. ("I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.") And whereas "Us" used "Jaws" allusions as mere window-dressing, "Nope" is a movie that is even more deeply indebted to Spielberg's film in its plot beats and third-act narrative structure.

One of the scariest moments in "Nope" subtly plays off the "Jaws" scene where a shark sighting turns out to be a false alarm, caused by kids pulling a prank with a fake fin. In this case, the laconic horse trainer OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) has three kids in alien costumes from the neighboring Jupiter's Claim theme park give him a scare in a dark barn as revenge, after his sister Em (Keke Palmer) steals a display horse from their dad.

"Jaws" famously withholds the sight of its shark in the water, and "Nope" goes for the same effect by wrapping its UFO (or UAP), Jean Jacket, in a cloud as it hunts people from the skies overhead. The reveal that Jean Jacket is not a ship but a territorial animal shaped like a flying saucer further characterizes it along the lines of the similarly grey-colored shark in "Jaws." The circular black hole in the bottom of it ("about two school buses wide") is, in fact, a big gaping mouth, minus the shark teeth.

Flagging the monster's presence, giving Quint 'Antlers'

When Jean Jacket sucks up the display horse as a snack, this leaves the colorful line of flags attached to the horse fluttering out of it—another riff on the "Jaws" flotation barrel trick, which allows us to track the UFO's sky movements even though we can't see it yet. Peele also has the power and music cut out as the monster nears, flagging its presence with auditory cues the way Spielberg did with John Williams' music in "Jaws" (though in this case, he's using diegetic stereo music and not composer Michael Abels' score).

Cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) serves as Peele's 2022 analog to the grizzled shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) in "Jaws." Instead of catching and killing the UFO, Antlers joins up with OJ and Em to capture footage of it, which he accomplishes by hand-cranking his non-electrical camera in the fashion of Quint's fishing reel. Em talks about getting the impossible shot, the money shot, the Oprah shot, and how it will make them rich and famous for life. But Antlers is less concerned with money than Quint and he warns Em (and practically everyone on social media), "This dream you're chasing, the one where you're at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you, it's the dream you never wake up from."

The Oprah shot is the Brody shot

In the end, Antlers gets eaten the way Quint did in "Jaws," while tech expert Angel (Brandon Perea) gets spit back out and manages to survive the way oceanographic expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) did. Instead of climbing in a shark cage, Angel wraps himself in a tarp with barbed wire. This and OJ's deployment of a parachute (another potential alien choking hazard) may help trigger a defense mechanism in Jean Jacket, whereby it puffs up when threatened into a different Angel: one out of "Neon Genesis Evangelion."

Em gets her climactic Oprah shot of Jean Jacket via the Winkin' Well camera at Jupiter's Claim. It takes her several tries, though, just as it does with Brody in "Jaws" when he's lining up his gun to shoot at the shark. The Oprah shot is really the Brody shot. If there were any doubt about the comparison between the two, we even see the Winkin' Well in a God's-eye view from directly above, which makes it look like a gun barrel. After the Jupiter's Claim cowboy mascot balloon pops inside it, the UFO then blows up the way the shark blows up.

In "Nope," traumatized child-actor-turned-theme-park-showman Jupe (Steven Yeun) refers to "an alien species called the viewers," and Peele leaves it up to them to decide whether OJ survived or is now truly "Out Yonder" — on another plane of existence — like the sign over him at the end would seem to indicate. He's on a horse and there's Spaghetti Western music playing, which positions this sci-fi Western with chapters as a Tarantino-esque "Once Upon a Time in Haywood" (instead of Hollywood). But above all else, "Nope" is a "Jaws" riff.

1975 to 1982 all over again

"Nope" holds even more Spielberg references beyond "Jaws," of course. The image of the blood-spattered chimpanzee Gordy (Terry Notary) reaching under the table for his final exploding fist bump with Young Jupe (Jacob Kim) recalls the movie poster visual of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial connecting with a human finger, like in Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting "The Creation of Adam." At the end, when Jean Jacket arrives, Angel also says, "It's heeere," with the same intonation that the little girl in "Poltergeist" says, "They're heeere."

Both those films arrived in the summer of '82, five years after Spielberg and George Lucas's first brush with aliens in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "Star Wars." Speaking of which, "Nope" isn't the only 2022 tentpole with a third act that feels like a remake of a '70s summer blockbuster. "Top Gun: Maverick" managed to become, domestically, the fifth highest-grossing film of all time by reheating the Death Star trench run from "Star Wars" — on Earth — and otherwise filling the need for aspirational human stories in a market saturated with superheroes.

The difference is that "Top Gun: Maverick" is fundamentally a franchise film, a legacy sequel with three credited screenwriters that is cribbing from "Star Wars" (whether they admit it or not) and cashing in on nostalgia for the '80s movie that made Tom Cruise a household name. "Nope" feels like a more personal expression of one writer-director's vision and affinity for Spielberg, by way of his cast and crew.

Spielberg's movie children

Like "Jaws," "Nope" was made within the studio system at Universal Pictures. Production designer Ruth DeJong's set for Jupiter's Claim now has a home as an attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood, just as "Jaws" once did at Universal Studios Florida (and still does at Universal Studios Japan).

While the critical and audience reaction to Peele's three movies remains largely positive, it shows a slight downturn from "Get Out" to "Nope," with the longer running time and quotidian "hobby weed" pace of the latter being one reason, perhaps, that some viewers didn't connect with it as much. One can't help but think that predictions about Peele or anyone else being "the next Spielberg" are as futile as ones labeling various Japanese animators "the next Hayao Miyazaki." Hubris and careerism somewhat felled two other would-be Spielberg successors, M. Night Shyamalan and J.J. Abrams, and Spielberg himself is still with us, making great movies like "West Side Story."

That said, "Nope" cheekily establishes that refusing to look spectacle in the eye can save you from being eaten, which sounds like it could also be a good rule of thumb for how to engage with ravenous studio products. Peele's movie is arguably a truer heir to "Jaws" than other cash-grab modern blockbusters, since "Jaws" was an auteur-driven New Hollywood miracle that only later led to rampant sequelitis because of its box-office success.

Heedless of the dangers, the mayor in "Jaws" insists, "We need summer dollars." Hollywood adopted the same mentality post-1975, peddling spectacle at the expense of production members' health and safety sometimes — not unlike the safety meeting gone wrong at the start of "Nope."

Death for dollars

Antlers Holst gets himself killed in "Nope," but real-life cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was a casualty of others' negligence on the set of "Rust." And there are many more stories of below-the-line crew members, like the VFX artists subcontracted by Marvel Studios or the IATSE members who almost went on strike in 2021, working under less-than-ideal or even hazardous conditions in service of studio profit and entertainment for the masses.

Peele produced and hosted a "Twilight Zone" revival, and "The Twilight Zone: The Movie" — co-produced and co-directed by Spielberg and John Landis — is another infamous horror story where star Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen were killed in a helicopter accident, two of them by decapitation. It's more disturbing than the fictional "Gordy's Home" incident in "Nope" because this is something that really happened.

The first victim of "Nope," animal wrangler Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), is notably killed by a coin through the eye that the monster regurgitates. Adding insult to injury, it's a nickel with the face of a slave-owning president, Thomas Jefferson, on it. That's an ignominious end for a descendent of the anonymous Black jockey who was the first man on film. Yet it's in line with the nature of a movie monster that fills the air with people's screams as it digests them alive and disgorges a rain of blood and coins.

While he dies, Otis murmurs names from the Western canon like Beethoven and Virgil. "Nope" likewise builds on the Easter eggs of "Us" and recontextualizes familiar moments from "Jaws," the original man-eating blockbuster, to critique the house of spectacle it built and the even longer history of exploitation in Hollywood.