This Nope article contains spoilers.
In writer-director Jordan Peele’s Nope, a brother and sister named OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood are struggling to keep their family business – which provides trained horses for Hollywood productions – afloat following the bizarre death of their father, Otis (Keith David), and studios’ increasing dependence on CG rather than real animals.
The taciturn OJ (or Otis Jr.) wants to keep the business alive and hang onto the family ranch nestled in a remote California valley north of Los Angeles, while the more outgoing Emerald wants to somehow find a way to monetize their legacy as she pursues her own dreams of Hollywood fame.
The inexplicable object in the room, however, is the unidentified flying object – that’s UFO to you – that has been plaguing their property for months, starting with the unexplained rain of solid objects from the sky that ended with the death of Otis Sr. (who got a nickel embedded in his head). Six months after that, the object is still buzzing the valley at inopportune times, damaging the ranch and quite possibly sucking up some of the Haywoods’ horses as well.
If they can capture photos or video of the object, Emerald reckons, they can turn that into a financial windfall as proof that aliens exist. With the help of a recently heartbroken electronics store clerk named Angel (Brandon Perea), who believes in all kinds of UFO conspiracy theories, the Haywoods set up cameras on their property and wait for their opportunity. But in classic Peele fashion, things are not what they seem, starting with the object itself.
What are the themes of Nope?
A large portion of Nope is about the forgotten history of Hollywood. Haywood Hollywood Horses is the only Black-owned trained animal business in the industry, and they come from a long line of Black cowboys who have been more or less erased from that history (their great-great-grandfather was, Emerald claims, the unidentified Black jockey riding a horse in an 1887 series of photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge that is widely regarded as the first motion picture).
A prime example of the whitewashing of history is just down the road from the Haywood ranch, at a small Western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim that is based on the idealized Hollywood version of the Old West. It’s run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star whose career ended following a horrifying incident in which members of the cast of the sitcom he starred in were mauled and killed by the show’s chimpanzee star.
Both Jupe and the Haywoods are part of Hollywood’s fading past, and they’re all trying in their own ways to hold onto their legacy. OJ and Emerald are haunted by their father in different ways, while Jupe is haunted by the traumatizing incident on the set of Gordy’s Home. The alien object plays into their aspirations, but in differing and ultimately deadly ways.
What is the alien object?
The turning point that sets the climax of Nope in motion is when OJ realizes – after seeing the alien object up close – that it’s not a spaceship as everyone first assumed. It’s a creature – a presumably space-faring organism that hides in the clouds above the Haywoods’ valley and comes down when it’s hungry to feast on living creatures.
OJ, relying on his knowledge of training animals (“Some horses can’t be tamed,” his father gravely intones in a brief flashback), figures out that as long as he doesn’t make direct eye contact with the creature – or least, doesn’t look into what passes for an eye on its underbelly – he can avoid being slurped up and digested. He also deduces that the creature doesn’t like eating inanimate or artificial objects, which is the reason for the constant rain of discarded material every time the thing comes buzzing around (it basically regurgitates what it doesn’t like).
Peele never gives us a whole lot more information about the alien – and nor does he have to, really. We don’t necessarily need a back story or origin for this creature, although at one point we were hoping for just a little bit more context for why it haunts the valley where the Haywoods live. Some commentators have suggested that the alien is a metaphor for Hollywood itself – eating up and destroying the lives of craftspeople like the Haywoods and actors like Jupe that it has no use for anymore.
The horror at Jupiter’s Claim
In the movie’s most terrifying sequence, we learn that Jupe has been buying horses from the Haywoods, ostensibly for his theme park, but actually using them as bait for the creature. He’s been watching it too, and he wants to make money off it by selling tickets to his park’s amphitheater and luring the thing out of the clouds for people to stare at.
And that’s the problem: during his inaugural “performance,” the alien does indeed come out – and makes “eye” contact with Jupe, his wife, his sons, his staff members, and audience members. It proceeds to gobble them all up – we even see them slowly, agonizingly slide into the thing’s digestive tract for a moment – and then ejects all the stuff it doesn’t like, like clothing, keys, pieces of the amphitheater, a statue of a horse, and more all over the Haywoods’ ranch. Oh yeah, it also showers blood down on their home as well, with OJ trapped in a car outside and Emerald and Angel hiding inside the house.
Ready for its closeup
OJ, Emerald, and Angel devise a plan to capture the alien on film once and for all, and perhaps even injure it by feeding it something it doesn’t like (bunting). But because the electricity goes out every time the creature is near, they can’t figure out how to keep their video cameras running. Enter the extraordinarily-named Antlers Holst, played by a growling, grumpy Michael Wincott. Holst is an award-winning cinematographer the Haywoods met on a shoot earlier in the picture. He learns about their problem and comes out to the ranch with a hand-cranked camera – no electrical parts.
With inflatable tube men set all over the ranch (they both attract the creature and act as a warning that it’s near when their battery shuts down), OJ rides his horse Lucky out into the center of the gulch as well, offering himself as bait. The plan is to get the creature out of the clouds, take footage with Holst’s camera, and then see if they can kill the beast.
But of course the plan goes awry, thanks to a pesky, irritating TMZ reporter in an odd silver helmet who shows up on his motorcycle and rides into the valley. He stirs up the creature and is killed, with Angel, Emerald, and Holst all getting some of it filmed, but Holst still doesn’t get the shot he wants. So he climbs up a hill himself and tries to shoot right up inside the monster’s maw, but becomes lunch as well. Whether he got the perfect shot or not remains unresolved.
Angel is in the line of fire and almost gets devoured himself, but thinking quickly, he ties some barbed wire fencing around himself as he’s hauled into the creature’s gullet. The thing promptly spits him back out, not liking the taste of barbed wire at all, and Angel survives but is benched for the rest of the picture. That just leaves OJ, Emerald, and Lucky (why the military and all kinds of other authorities aren’t out there after 40 people disappear from Jupiter’s Claim – which is reported on the news! – is one of the glaring lapses in logic in this movie’s third act).
Popping the monster’s balloon
Fully awake and seemingly enraged, the creature hovers directly over the Haywoods’ property and lays waste to their house. If Emerald comes out, she’s as good as dead, but if she stays inside, she’ll be killed too. So OJ calls out the creature, leading it away from his sister and their family’s house as he apparently sacrifices himself and Lucky in an end run down the valley floor toward Jupiter’s Claim.
Emerald sees an opportunity. She jumps on the abandoned motorcycle and drives herself over to the amusement park, where she releases a giant inflatable boy – based on the character that Park played in a movie called “Kid Sheriff,” from which Park derived both his nickname and the name of the theme park – that the creature promptly swallows. But no sooner does it get the entire balloon in its throat than the inflatable explodes, tearing the creature to shreds from the inside. And oh yes, Emerald does get one clear, perfect shot of the creature as it dies, thanks to an antique camera.
As Emerald stands alone in the empty amusement park, tattered pieces of the alien floating away in the sky above, the clouds clear and just beyond the back gates of the park she sees OJ and Lucky, apparently alive and well. Or are they? Some viewers seem to think it’s a hallucination. They just stare at each other across the distance, so Peele leaves it somewhat ambiguous.
We’re supposed to perhaps sense that OJ and Emerald, who started the movie on the outs, have reconnected as family again. But that aspect of their journey is not particularly strong, and even if OJ and Lucky are truly alive (we think they are, to be honest), it doesn’t quite work as an emotional payoff.
But the whole climax doesn’t quite work either. The rules of how to deal with the creature are kind of randomly assigned, and some of the narrative leaps (like finding out that Jupe knows about the creature too) are rather confusingly handled. And since the thematic threads about Hollywood, legacy, and past trauma are never quite explored in a coherent fashion, they don’t make the ending as resonant and powerful as Peele no doubt wants it to be.
Nope is out in theaters now.