Review by Tim Robins
Nope is a comedic Sci-Fi tale of a Californian community menaced by a UFO, prone to spewing its victims blood and belongings all over anyone who happens to be underneath it at the time. Neither as weird or disjointed as some critics have claimed, producer, director and writer Jordan Peele, of Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) acclaim, spins a colourful, clever tale that suggests we should take the natural world, including ourselves, with a little more respect.
The film weaves together the lives of the Haywoods, a family of Hollywood horse wranglers, and Ricky Jupe Park, who, as a child, was in the cast of a 1997 sitcom Gordy’s Home!, about a chimp who returns to Earth after being shot into space by NASA. All their lives are marked by tragedy. Otis OJ and Emerald Em Haywood inherit their father’s farm after he is killed by a nickel plummeting out of the sky.
As a child, Jube is one of the few people to survive a horrific attack launched on fellow cast members by his primate co-star and on-screen best friend, Gordy. The characters’ response to these tragedies is to turn them into a spectacle. Em has stars in her eyes and hopes to get her Oprah shot of the alien visitor with the aid of CCTV set up by a local technician, Angel Torres, and invites a renowned cinematographer, Antlers Holster, to film the thing. Jube has capitalised on his trauma by setting up a museum to Gordy’s Home! in his Wild West theme park, Jupiter’s Claim. Now, he hopes to make money from the alien visitor by selling tickets to see it devour a horse.
Only OJ resists the temptation to view the visitor, reasoning that the only reason that he has escaped being killed is because he has averted his eyes. Peele has said that the title Nope refers to that moment in horror films where the audience are so horrified or scared by what they are watching that they avert their eyes. Although I think Nope is also a riposte to the Obama campaign slogan, Hope.
Peele has also said that the film was his attempt to write The Great America UFO story. Nope certainly sits nicely alongside Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Signs, and Cowboys vs Aliens. But, while saying this, Peele also invokes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a candidate for the title of the Great American novel. Nope invites us to see Em and Antlers as Captain Ahab types, obsessively seeking to capture the voluminous white alien even if that may lead to their deaths. And, Moby Dick, the alien in white, a ‘colour’ whose meanings Melville devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 42: The whiteness of the whale) to exploring.
Although Moby Dick is often discussed as a contender for the Great American Novel, one that captures the essence of American life, I am certain Peele knows that the book John William De Forest mentioned, when he coined the term, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But Nope isn’t a lecture, so the audience can happily watch the film without even a tinge of White guilt.
Instead, Nope is held together by a succession of knowing gags:
Gordy’s blood-stained face staring out over the credit Monkeypaw Productions with blood stained paws and mouth; Em photobombs a white family’s holiday snap at the same time inserting herself into the Western genre; grotesque, brightly coloured ‘air dancers’ goofily wave and dance to attract the UFOs attention – Jupe has labelled the imagined occupants of the craft viewers
The director’s take on colour is dealt with playfully. As Em tells a production team, there has always been skin in the game and traces the Haywood’s ancestry back to the black jockey seen riding a horse in one of Eadweard Muybridge’s late 19th century experimental photographic plates, that were a foundation for the creation of cinema by capturing sequential moments and displaying their subject matter as if in motion.
Peele is clearly in love with the cinema image but, most of all, he is in love with filming black skin. Yet, at the same time, he is aware of how people with black skin have been used by Hollywood. There are scenes of Em vibrantly dancing alone to music in her father’s home. Although the scenes display the character’s ebullient joy in life, there is another side to such moments.
As Clarence Muse, the first African-American to star in a film, noted in “The Dilemma of the Negro Actor”, There are two audiences in America to confront, “the white audience with a definite desire for buffoonery and song, and the Negro audience with a desire to see the real elements of Negro life portrayed. So when Keke Palmer, as Em, dances around her room, she is putting on a show for white folks, while celebrating the place of music and dance in African American and her own character’s lives.
Peele isn’t afraid of using previously-racist tropes for representing African Americans and playing with their meaning. I found Daniel Kaluuya’s performance as OJ particularly challenging. His sullen refusal to even look at the UFO recalled the kind of performance expected of a black servant, mop in hand, eyes averted or to the ground, shaking his head and saying nope, no sir, not me to his master. OJ’s view that creatures and their territory should be treated with respect and not turned into a spectacle falls apart when the alien reveals its spectacular size. The truth is, the powerful are unafraid of making spectacles of themselves when they want to. It’s how they roll.
Nope does dance close to catastrophe. Peele is juggling with so many saucers; some begin to wobble out of his control. Emerald’s name associates her with The Wonderful Wizard of OZ, Aunt EM and the Emerald City. And we see bunting swirling around a whirlwind’s spout. But these associations go nowhere. Although, as she knocks her head on the theme park’s wishing well, maybe what follows is all a dream.
Worse, Gordy’s attack parallels the real attack of an ape called Travis who went berserk when a woman visiting his owner held up a tickle-me-elmo doll. The woman suffered horrific injuries. The incident was featured on Oprah. Hence, references to ‘Oprah Shot’. So, not so funny when you think of it, and neither is the shot of Park’s disfigured co-star on Gordey’s Home!, who inadvertently provoked the chimp’s attack when she gave the ape a box of balloons and they began to burst.
Peele’s directorial eye fits well with the works of Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, and even John Waters and George Lucas, in that their films play with the audience’s own knowledge of cinema tropes including their history. Nope is an exuberant romp through cinematic memory. This does make the film rather arch. I was never gripped as I was watching M Night Shyamalan’s equally silly Signs. I was thoroughly entertained. Just sit back, and enjoy the wildest if wobbliest of wild rides.
• Nope is screening in cinemas across the UK now
In lighting, makeup and camera calibration, cinema has pandered to white skin for decades. Now, a new generation of film-makers are keen to ensure people of colour look as good on screen as they should
A freelance journalist and Doctor Who fanzine editor since 1978, Tim Robins has written on comics, films, books and TV programmes for a wide range of publications including Starburst, Interzone, Primetime and TV Guide.
His brief flirtation with comics includes ghost inking a 2000AD strip and co-writing a Doctor Who strip with Mike Collins. Since 1990 he worked at the University of Glamorgan where he was a Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Media Studies and the social sciences. Academically, he has published on the animation industry in Wales and approaches to social memory. He claims to be a card carrying member of the Politically Correct, a secret cadre bent on ruling the entire world and all human thought.