Jordan Peele’s new movie Nope has received a slightly more divisive reception than his previous films because of its complexity as a piece of work. It defies simplistic analysis but does that make it weaker than its predecessors?
Jordan Peele’s budding body of work is fast becoming one of the most accomplished and nuanced in US cinema. His clever insights into modern America are fascinating. Provocative and important themes such as modern and historic race relations, inequality, and capitalist excess are dotted throughout 2017’s Get Out and 2019’s Us. The immediate reaction to his new movie mostly revolved around the film’s fear factor. This is a perfectly reasonable take given that the movie is indeed terrifying, as Twitter can attest:
However, besides the jump scares and violence Peele includes for entertainment value, there are some very interesting themes at play in Nope. Indeed, it opens itself widely to interpretation and is therefore engaging on multiple levels. Here are just a couple below.
Some view Nope as a sly comment upon capitalism which is an argument that may hold some water. Steven Yeun’s character Jupe leads a life defined by capitalism and consumerism, building his business on these pillars. In his childhood, the character (here played by Jacob Kim) was the star of a cringe-worthy primetime sitcom called Gordy’s Home in the 90s. The show concerns a family that adopts a pet chimpanzee; think Full House for stylistic reference. Because of the show’s blind obsession with ratings and popularity, the danger of placing a wild animal on stage with actors (including child actors) is ignored entirely.
Nope is damning about the consequences of the rating drive, fuelled by the ambition to make money. During a taping of the show, the chimpanzee playing Gordy loses control, unleashing a bout of violence upon the cast which ends in serious, potentially fatal injuries. This is presented in the film as a flashback for Jupe, for whom the moment looms large. Instead of dealing with the memory in a healthy manner, however, Jupe instead commodifies the experience. He erects a shrine to the show and its disastrous end, a bloody shoe sitting atop a plinth. Jupe then uses the presence of the alien as an attraction to be sold. Throughout, Jupe represents the intent to commercialize the fantastical or the misunderstood. His fate in the movie feels like a comment on the morality of this.
America’s History with Spectacle?
Nope’s lead characters OJ and Em are determined in their pursuit of what they call the ‘Oprah shot’. Evidently, in their eyes, this shot is the route to fame and fortune. They particularly want to leave a mark, given the forgotten legacy of their great, great, great grandfather who was denied a place in cinema history by systematic oppression. This could be seen as a comment pull on the way in which African-American history has been held hostage by white institutions and access to historical truth has been blocked in the past. There is perhaps an element of correcting a wrong from the past here, with the acknowledgment that the most famous in American culture may not necessarily be the most deserving.
Correspondingly, Nope could be seen as making a general comment on spectacle. OJ, Em, and Jupe are all incredibly motivated to capture the alien on camera. Indeed, they go to extreme lengths to do so. The consequences of this insistence vary for each character. However, Jupe’s death at the hands of the alien could be considered a warning against chasing spectacle. Particularly for the sake of money and fame. As too can the death of Antlers Holst, a cinematographer OJ and Em enlist, who is obsessed with capturing the perfect shot.
Symbolism Abounds In Nope
The various themes in Nope crossover, with spectacle and capitalism overlapping. This feels like good filmmaking though, with different threads of symbolism working holistically. The breadth of the film’s discussion lends itself to age-old interpretation: a piece of work as an overall depiction of contemporary culture. Perhaps a little hackneyed, this nevertheless feels like the only reading able to match the scope of the film’s ambition. Peele doesn’t present a film with a single thread or a simplistically overt meaning. There are many conflicting and, conversely, connected layers to this film, just as there are in society. These are complex, divisive issues with no one interpretation more important or correct than the next.
Obviously, this is not something that is confined exclusively to America but any film is likely to reflect the culture in which it is produced. Choc-full of symbolism, this film is messy but it’s challenging too and it will make its audience think. What more could any veritable film geek ask for than that?