Nope Spoiler Review: A Thrilling Spectacle About The Horrors Of Exploitation

The word "spectacle" has been bandied about a fair amount in the run-up to Jordan Peele's third feature film, "Nope." Peele has leaned into it in the marketing, too, so it comes as no surprise that "spectacle" is one of the first words in the film itself, appearing as part of a Biblical epigraph, before it crops in the film's dialogue as part of a repeated theme-park show spiel. But where modern culture sees and hears the word "spectacle" as a sign of something epic or incredible, "Nope" sees spectacle as dangerous and exploitative. Yes, "Nope" is a spectacle of sorts, and a generally quite thrilling and tense adventure, but its thematic commentary pushes the dark side of spectacle in each scene.

Ostensibly, "Nope" is about a somewhat estranged pair of siblings — OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) — embarking on a quest to capture slick high-definition footage of a UFO that's particularly keen on hanging out near the horse ranch their father once ran on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Yet a commentary on the exploitation wrought by people upon themselves and each other, especially within Hollywood, and how that exploitation can backfire grimly is bubbling just under the surface. Even before we meet the Haywoods, we get a glimpse of the results of that exploitation: a few moments of the aftermath of an inexplicably bloody attack on a TV soundstage by a violent chimpanzee, an attack that's given more context over time and worth diving into here.

To set the stage, OJ and Emerald have been scraping by during the six months after their father Otis Sr. (Keith David) was killed by debris from a passing plane, with OJ (the shortened version of Otis Jr., which understandably creates some confusion among strangers) resorting to selling some of their horses to a neighboring Western theme park called Jupiter's Claim. That chintzy amusement park is run and hosted by former child star Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun). While visiting Ricky, Emerald sees a "MAD" magazine cover lampooning the aforementioned chimpanzee, which inspires the former actor to reveal a secret trophy room of sorts in his office dedicated to "Gordy's Home," a short-lived '90s sitcom whose popularity was snuffed out when Gordy the chimpanzee (performed via motion capture by Terry Notary) seemingly went crazy and attacked his human castmates. Ricky frames the violent explosion primarily through his recollection of an infamous "Saturday Night Live" sketch about the event, in which Chris Kattan played Gordy (if only we could see what that sketch would've looked like), while Peele presents us with the image of a single shoe in a glass case.

Absolute spectacle

But the scene is depicted differently, about midway through "Nope," as we jump back to 1998. The inciting event that sets Gordy off is the unexpected popping of some birthday balloons — the scene being filmed in front of a live studio audience has Gordy receiving birthday presents from his "family." Those balloons going off lead Gordy to go off, physically disfiguring one of the show's actresses and attacking the man who plays his "father." A young Ricky bears witness to this, hiding underneath a table on the show's set, before the chimp spies him and then reverts back to his learned behavior, fist-bumping the kid the way they do in character before being shot by off-screen police officers. 

When the flashback ends, Peele cuts to the grown Ricky, lost in thought before starting his daily theme-show performance (more about that later). From the outside in, this event seems genuinely harrowing to have witnessed (and Peele, as you would expect, does an excellent job of carefully staging the chimp-on-human violence to heighten suspense and dread). But Ricky, like much of the way culture responded to the event, is exploiting it for his own gain. The aforementioned shoe belonged to his female co-star, and was left untouched by Gordy in his attack, so Ricky has held onto it as a totem to show off. Though "Gordy's Family" isn't Ricky's chief claim to fame, he's profiting off of it, even blithely noting how a Dutch family paid him a ton to just spend time at their house recounting moments of the past.

It's entirely possible that some people will be baffled by the Gordy scenes of "Nope." On the face of it, they don't directly impact the story of OJ and Emerald, outside of them hearing the Gordy story in person. Whatever surprises lay in store in this film, Gordy has nothing to do with the UFO action. But his behavior mirrors that of many of the other (human, animal, and other) characters in the film, lashing out at unexpected moments due to inexplicable triggers caused by being in an environment that is unnatural to the way they were raised. Gordy's natural habitat is not a Hollywood soundstage. The Haywoods should not be diminished to the outskirts of the industry. The horses that the Haywoods raise and train are not meant to thrive on film and TV sets. And the UFO that the Haywoods, Ricky, and a few other characters encounter is not meant to thrive on our planet.

If there is a big twist in "Nope" — and you could debate how big this twist is — it's that the UFO in question is not a spaceship. From the trailers, you could be forgiven for assuming as much. There's a big, metallic-seeming object flying around and sucking things up from the ground into the air. Isn't that a classic, almost '50s-style flying saucer? Well, normally, it would be. But in "Nope", the UFO is an unidentified flying animal, or at least a flying, living ... thing

The Oprah shot

OJ and Emerald only realize this key difference after just barely avoiding becoming food themselves. Though OJ is a talented horse wrangler, he's not good at performing; Emerald is an exuberant performer, turning a brief safety meeting on the set of a Hollywood project into a miniature one-woman show, but has next to no idea of how to wrangle horses thanks to her dead father's hard-headedness. After the project goes south — OJ is unable to break through to the dismissive on-set crew about the dos and don'ts of interacting with their horse Lucky, causing Lucky to rear up and kick a crew member — the brother and sister head to the ranch where, that night, they're visited by ... something that turns off their power and causes a mini-tornado, sucking everything up in sight and making strange, unearthly sounds.

Emerald sees this as an opportunity to get rich quick, getting "the Oprah shot" and making big bucks, which would help OJ avoid having to sell the ranch to Ricky (let alone all the horses he's sold and wants to buy back). The brother-and-sister duo visit their local Fry's Electronics and inadvertently find the one tech guy, Angel (Brandon Perea), who is deeply enmeshed in the world of UFOs, or UAPs as they're now called. (Angel's conspiracy-theory angle serves as one of the film's most solid comic-relief throughlines.) Angel equips the ranch with a handful of interconnected cameras, and in so doing, realizes something that even OJ had not: there is a specific cloud overlooking one side of the ranch that hasn't moved ... in six months.

While the trio is spirited and invested, they — and Ricky — are also woefully not up to the task at first. Ricky finds this out in very violent fashion, in the first of two back-to-back standout setpieces. Over that six-month period, every Friday night at the same time, the UFO has come out from its hiding place, lured by the sight of a new horse that Ricky has used as bait, and absconded with it. Now, Ricky and his family are unveiling a show in the hopes of making that UFO an unintended member of the cast. But while the UFO does appear — earlier than expected — it does so because it's a combination of hungry and angry, which is a dangerous combination even in humans. For all the many haunting images in "Nope," it's hard to beat the image of Jupe's wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt), as she's being digested by this alien, her body being slowly swallowed up in the middle of its gastrointestinal tract. The image isn't gory, per se, but it's genuinely disturbing, in part because of how willingly everyone was offering themselves up without realizing it.

Soon after this attack, the UFO heads back to the ranch to lay as much waste as possible to the Haywoods and Angel. OJ inadvertently lures it there by trying to buy his horse Lucky back — having sold him to Ricky earlier — mere minutes after the feast at Jupiter's Claim has concluded. Though OJ doesn't get sucked into the creature's maw, he does get knocked out, waking up in a rainstorm and trying to head back home without becoming alien food. This sequence features the effectively disgusting and grim image of the UFO serving as both an umbrella over the Haywood house for the rain before raining down something of its own: a toxic mix of debris and churned-up blood.

It's in the middle of this massive case of bloody vomiting — which doesn't actually hurt OJ, Emerald, or Angel, but scares them all quite a bit — that OJ realizes a very important piece of information, using context clues. The UFO won't attack someone if that someone doesn't look at it directly. (Ricky and his audience all looked straight up, which was ... not a good idea.) After their joint failure to get footage of the alien during its attack — partly because of trifling matters like a praying mantis that won't leave the lens of one of the cameras alone — Emerald hits upon the idea of contacting grizzled cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who she and OJ had encountered on the aforementioned film shoot. Teasing him with the idea of getting a truly impossible shot, coupled with his watching a newscast that mentions how everyone at Jupiter's Claim has inexplicably gone missing, Antlers joins the motley crew and brings along an old-fashioned hand-crank camera that can be used even when the electricity goes out.

The next great blockbuster auteur

This final push to get the "Oprah shot" is as much a push to attack the circular-shaped alien, luring it out into the open ranges of the Haywood ranch thanks to a mix of loud music, inflatable tube-men from a local car dealership, and live bait (specifically OJ riding Lucky). The thematic commentary here comes a bit earlier — the night before the big push, Angel asks for affirmation from the others that what they're doing might actually "save lives." (Peele's script wisely does not attempt to offer any grander explanation for what the UFO is doing on Earth, if there are others, if the government knows, etc.) But this odd quartet really just wants to find some greater success, to break out in a way that they haven't before.

It's in keeping with the generally cynical viewpoint Peele has within "Nope" — a movie where a chimpanzee attack spawns not stricter animal-protection laws within Hollywood, but chintzy parodies, and where people gawp at their eventual destruction — that while the Haywoods achieve their immediate goal of capturing footage of the UFO and surviving in the process, it's arguably all for naught. Their ambush is initially waylaid by a mirror-helmeted TMZ cameraman who's snuck his way onto the ranch, presuming correctly that something newsworthy is going on, but in doing so, he ends up getting killed because he's focused too much on the clout he may gain. But even after the Haywoods, Angel, and Antlers, the latter of whom sacrifices himself mid-shoot, manage to film the alien and kill it — thanks to Emerald unleashing a massive cowboy balloon at Jupiter's Claim that the UFO unknowingly eats and is destroyed by — they did all the hard work and will get none of the credit. As soon as Emerald realizes she succeeded, she also realizes that a bevy of onlookers and news crews are at Jupiter's Claim to see what's going on, and got the same kind of Oprah shot.

It's a modern mirror image of one of the film's early monologues, as Emerald explains that the Haywoods are descended from the Black jockey filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in his 1870s combination of still photographs that were turned into the first motion picture. Emerald notes that many people know Muybridge (either by name or by the images he captured), but basically, no one knows the man in the images. That man, intentionally or not, was exploited, beginning one of the longest traditions in cinema, of careless exploitation. And in the end, Emerald and OJ — both of whom survive, as does Angel — came face to face with a creepy, jellyfish-like floating alien ... and their work is exploited by others who got there too late.

"Nope" is not the cleanest narrative Peele has written — that remains his debut picture, "Get Out", which is exceptionally effective and tidy in the way that it mounts a horror narrative with enough profoundly disturbing familiarity while balancing a body-horror side of things. "Us" has a mostly limited scope, but leaves the audience a bit empty with its final set of revelations and ambiguous ending, yet is thankfully bolstered by Lupita Nyong'o's career-best dual performance. "Nope" is a big throwback to classic summer movies as much as it's a commentary on how dangerously cruel and callous Hollywood can be — there's a great deal of inspiration mined from "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park" as well as M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" as well as the Hitchcock classic "The Birds." And that bigness is representative in how Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema pull off some remarkable, IMAX-filmed imagery (if you have the wherewithal and feel safe enough to do so, you really ought to see this on the biggest possible screen).

"Nope" is Jordan Peele going big or going home. And it works so well that Peele has proven himself more than worthy as the next great blockbuster director. There are only a handful of English-language filmmakers who can balance big themes with big imagery, from Spielberg to Shyamalan (sometimes, if not all the time) to Edgar Wright and Rian Johnson. Jordan Peele's up to the task, too; he might outshine the others.