Review: Jordan Peele's Sci-Fi Horror 'Nope' Wants Us to Look Away
by Alex Billington
July 22, 2022
🛸 "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." From Guy Debord's book Society of the Spectacle (via Wilkinson's review). The truth about humanity is that we just can't help wanting to get a look at something for ourselves – no matter what it is. This is epitomized in that old trope of – when there's an accident on the highway, everyone has to slow down and look, hoping to either see something shocking or figure out exactly what happened. I admit I've done this, and probably so have you. Acclaimed horror filmmaker Jordan Peele's latest film Nope is an attempt at addressing our obsession with spectacle and this insatiable desire to look, rather than look away. By the end of the movie, I was thinking Don't Look Up would've been a better title for this than Nope, but that was already taken by another sci-fi movie about humanity's unflappable need to turn any disaster into spectacular entertainment.
Following Get Out and Us, it's clear that Jordan Peele is an intelligent, clever filmmaker and screenwriter, with plenty to say and a natural cinematic sense of how to say it through big screen storytelling. His focus in Nope is telling a UFO story through the lens of a brother and sister. OJ, played by Daniel Kaluuya, runs Haywood's Hollywood Horses, a horse ranch owned by generations of Black horse trainers. It started with the their great-great-great grandfather Alistair E. Haywood, who was the Black jockey seen riding the horse in the "very first movie" - Eadweard Muybridge's The Horse in Motion. At this point, however, they are struggling because not many real horses are used on set anymore. When they notice a strange Unidentified Flying Object in the clouds near their ranch, they get excited about the prospect of trying to capture it on camera and make money as the ones who found it and got footage. This is a futile endeavor, of course, and Peele's movie is less about that and more about how we can't help ourselves trying to photograph it anyway.
OJ's sister is Emerald, played with spunk and style by Keke Palmer, who has a more grounded sensibility when it comes to crazy shit like a weird UFO wreaking havoc on and disrupting their charming, dusty valley of Agua Dulce. Nearby to their ranch is Jupiter's Claim, a faux western town tourist destination run by Ricky "Jupe" Park, played by Steven Yeun, a former child actor who is now using his past fame and glory to try and still make money with this rundown money pit. Peele is especially sneaky and clever in the way he has crafted a Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi horror movie around our endless obsession with spectacle. The bulk of the plot is entirely about the desire to capture the UFO on camera, which is mainly Peele's commentary on how we're unable to deal with horrifying events and terrifying things without turning them into a movie. As referenced in the quote at the opening, this is a common theme with humanity over the last 100 years – ever since the invention of the motion picture. We can no longer process actual horror unless it's spectacle.
As clever as all of this is, the movie isn't particularly thrilling or satisfying as commentary on this dilemma. I keep seeing critics referring to it as a big summer blockbuster on the scale of Independence Day, but there's hardly a single action scene of note in the entire movie. It's way more of a drama with a big budget, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, though it certainly feels empty overall by the end. My other key criticism is that this commentary is very surface level. There aren't many layers to it, and it lacks depth. Everything is right there in the narrative, right on the surface – this is a movie about our obsession with turning very scary horror into entertainment for profit. Okay, and…? Everything else hidden within the frames and the subtext seems to be an extension of that commentary: why we shouldn't look, how we can try to stop ourselves, what happens if you do look, and how society degrades in its inability to never look away. Where does that take us? Right here, right to Agua Dulce, which is now experiencing the real terror of staring up at that spectacle.
Nope is an immersive and seriously compelling sci-fi horror about something strange and unexplainable – nature itself. But it feels like nothing more than just the same kind of spectacle it's commenting on anyway. I'm not sure why Peele, who clearly has the talent to pull off complex stories, doesn't work more into this. Most of what happens throughout Nope could be condensed into the first and second act, leaving room to push even further and explore more consequences in the third act. It's one of these movies that, right when it ends is also right when it starts to feel like it was really getting going. There's a remarkably exciting and – finally – thrilling climax in the third act regarding their confrontation with this UFO and what it is and what it means and what's really going on. It is a gorgeous sci-fi revelation, but it once again feels empty. Perhaps this is Peele's point worked into his commentary - this spectacle is empty, and humanity gains nothing from being so obsessed with it. There's nothing to learn from it except, maybe, we really must learn to look away.
I do want to analyze the final revelation and what happens in the third act more, but I'd rather save that for a spoiler-filled discussion. Nothing about Nope is worth dismissing, it's just not he spectacular knock out I was really hoping it might be. It left me feeling more underwhelmed than intrigued, and more amused than thrilled. Peele is unquestionably an exceptional filmmaker who continues to hone his craft with each film he makes, but the flaws in this one are glaring and cavernous, mostly because it has been overhyped as this expensive blockbuster bigger than anything he's made before. It may be Peele's most ambitious movie so far, and I certainly appreciate his originality and ambition. However, I hope he focuses his ambitions on crafting a better screenplay next time, as this is where it seems can improve the most. For now, Nope is still worth enjoying just don't get lost in the spectacle of this big screen entertainment. If we end up learning nothing from Nope and what it's trying to say, then our hope of solving the mysteries of this universe is truly futile.