“Watch the skies!” That was the warning at the end of The Thing from Another World, the 1951 alien horror later remade as The Thing. But what if it’s the skies that are watching us? This is the idea behind Nope, written and directed by Jordan Peele, whose chilling 2017 debut Get Out argued that racism had found no greater camouflage than the liberalism of the Obama era.
Nope swoops off into Close Encounters of the Third Kind territory, complete with references to The Wizard of Oz, including a bloodthirsty chimp as terrifying as any winged monkey. Issues of race remain pertinent. Introduced to Otis Haywood Jr (Daniel Kaluuya), a horse wrangler whose animals are used in movies, a white actor looks alarmed: “Your name’s OJ?” she winces. (Peele’s previous picture, Us, also featured a white character invoking the spectre of OJ Simpson.)
OJ and his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), suspect that there are aliens in the skies above their Californian desert ranch, and set out to capture the spectacle on film. The Haywoods are descendants of the black jockey photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in “The Horse in Motion”, the 1878 series of images that preceded the invention of the zoopraxiscope and the film projector. “Since the moment pictures could move, we’ve had skin in the game,” Emerald says during an excitable sales pitch. Her taciturn brother looks on, not so much chalk to her cheese as monolith to her Catherine wheel.
Pairing him with the manic, bopping Palmer offsets Kaluuya’s stoniness perfectly. He’s a languid Robert Mitchum type – even if the lights appear to be off, there’s always somebody home – which makes it that much funnier when his responses prove ineffectual. Sitting in his truck as the silvery night sky is torn apart by extraterrestrial turbulence, he presses down the puny little lock on his door. That’ll show ’em.
If Nope resembles a Western, with its horses and parched landscape, then it’s not one that John Wayne would recognise. Black actors have occupied the genre before (Buck and the Preacher, the 1972 Sidney Poitier/ Harry Belafonte movie referenced here, is one example) but there’s real potency in the spread of heroes: two African-Americans, one of them gay; an Asian-American theme-park entrepreneur, Jupe (Stephen Yeun); and a Mexican tech specialist, Angel (Brandon Perea), who needs no convincing about “the little guys with the big eyes”.
The picture begins with an attack from the heavens, as though a sniper were using not bullets but objects found down the back of a sofa. A key is embedded in a horse; a nickel takes out a man’s eye, killing him and providing the first in a series of Cyclops-themed images (a winking cartoon cowboy; a mirrored crash helmet bearing one circular eye). A grizzled film-maker named Holst (Michael Wincott) intones the lyrics of a novelty record as portentously as if they were scripture: “It was a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people-eater…”
What is it with Peele and peepers? In Get Out, a blind man tells his captive (also played by Kaluuya) that he craves “your eye. I want the thing you see through.” In Us, a man trapped in a body-bag pokes a single spy-hole through the fabric. Such imagery is bound to have a heightened resonance in Nope, a film about seeing and being seen, with everything that the phrase entails. As a former TV child star, it’s understandable that Jupe would refer to the aliens as “the viewers”, but the choice between looking and looking away is central to Nope, and to how it ends.
It is an unusual sort of horror film that is concerned not with vanquishing an extraterrestrial enemy but photographing it – getting what the Haywoods call the “Oprah” shot. Money plays a part in their mission (such a picture would be lucrative), but the potential of the recorded image to reveal and expose has been a consideration, not least for people of colour in the US, since decades before the murder of George Floyd.
If this sounds like stretching a point, then beware of underestimating Peele, who can knit the political and the cinematic with aplomb – as in the shot of Emerald garlanded in yellow police tape, as if her body itself has become a crime scene. Of course, meanings in Nope spring eternal, and they are surely too numerous to be absorbed in one go. A repeat viewing, then? I wouldn’t say nope.
“Nope” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World