[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
The Digital Age has transformed mankind into a society of insatiable voyeurs. YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram have conditioned us to demand an endless stream of content—to chase trends, to pursue clout, to become the next big viral sensation. This, of course, perpetuates a cruel, vulgar, degrading cycle of production and consumption that distills human beings down into easily digestible data points on some soulless corporation’s spreadsheet.
“Click here to see how many fellow users have engaged with your post.”
“Here’s what you should buy based on your recent browsing history.”
“Worship the Almighty Algorithm.”
Is there a more appropriate symbol for our hashtag-obsessed culture’s gluttony for spectacle than a UFO that resembles an enormous eye in the sky, greedily and mindlessly devouring every witness that it encounters?
Whatever Jordan Peele’s Nope may lack in subtlety, it more than makes up for with thematic cohesion: all of his characters must grapple with the fear of career obsolescence in the rapidly evolving entertainment industry. Protagonists OJ and Emerald Haywood, for example, struggle to keep their family’s Hollywood animal training business afloat in the era of CGI. Minor antagonist Ricky “Jupe” Park, meanwhile, is a former child actor surviving on nostalgia alone; his ramshackle theme park, Jupiter’s Claim, is a decaying monument to the role that made him famous—and a grim reminder of the success that now eludes him.
In their desperation to cling to relevance, these broken souls resort to packaging and selling themselves, reducing their identities to commodities. The Haywood siblings, for instance, market themselves as the descendants of the first Black man in motion pictures—namely, the jockey that rode the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous sequential photography experiments—in the hopes that this tenuous connection to film history will attract the interest of potential clients. Park, on the other hand, shamelessly exploits his own past trauma, turning a tragic on-set accident that killed several of his costars into a morbid sideshow attraction. Even Antlers Holst—the cinematographer that the Haywoods hire to capture the “Oprah shot” of their extraterrestrial interloper—espouses a cynical “one for them, one for me” philosophy, wasting his talents on unworthy commercial projects in order to finance his more personal artistic endeavors.
There’s a lot to savor in Nope—from its immaculate plot structure (which evokes Back to the Future—a gradual buildup to a single massive set piece, with multiple narrative “seeds” established along the way ultimately paying off during the explosive climax) to its oppressive atmosphere (the alien’s nighttime siege on our heroes’ ranch—which involves fog, rain, shadows, an electronically distorted rendition of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night”, and a deluge of regurgitated blood and debris—is deliciously suspenseful)—but as always with Peele’s movies, it’s the underlying ideas that truly elevate the material. Loud, bombastic, expensive blockbusters are a dime a dozen nowadays, but few other directors working in that overcrowded field are able to marry style and substance so seamlessly, gracefully, and harmoniously.