In ‘The Society of the Spectacle,’ Guy Deboard wrote “the spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people.” Jordan Peele’s third film, the thriller movie Nope, is an encapsulation of this idea. Before going any further, please bear in mind that this review will contain spoilers for Nope, so don’t read it if you want to avoid spoilers!
It’s not so much a plot-driven story as it is a collection of spectacles, each presented with a new title card. What ties them all together is the way they influence our leading casts’ behaviour, as they all grapple with two questions. Firstly, how can these spectacles benefit them? Secondly, how much are they willing to sacrifice to attain those benefits?
The hypnotic allure of spectacle and its potential to satiate our desire for notoriety has been explored since the ’60s, but in an era of clout chasing, it’s more pertinent than ever. Day in, day out, we read reports on people falling to their deaths from cliffs, dying from dangerous TikTok challenges, or risking getting run over on train tracks as they try to pursue ‘the perfect shot.’
We might dismiss these people as foolish teenagers sucked in by the toxicity of social media, but the truth is, we all have that near-primitive desire for notoriety on some level — we just now have more tools that allow this desire to come to the surface.
Nope is centred around an all-consuming monster that chews people up and spits them out when they cease to be useful. But this monster in itself doesn’t harm someone unless they look directly into its eye: unless they, on some level, want to connect with this monster. Anyone with common sense would see this Biblical angel-looking creature, say “nope,” and get the fuck out of there.
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But rather than run away, OJ, Emerald, Jupe, Angel, and Antlers actively pursue this monster, desperately trying to catch a glimpse in order to experience the fame that comes from experiencing a spectacle like this.
They all want to experience fame and fortune, despite its potential to chew them up and discard them in the exact same way the monster does. In many ways, the monster is a visual representation of the corrupt and unforgiving nature of Hollywood and helps to lay bare how foolish it is to chase after something so violent.
The metaphor might have been more effective if Peele and leading cast members weren’t multi-millionaire Hollywood hotshots, but with the Haywards, he is able to accurately demonstrate the way in which Hollywood has historically shut out and erased Black contributions.
OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) should be Hollywood royalty, with their family being responsible for the first-ever moving image of a jockey riding a horse. But instead, they are sidelined in favour of CGI and struggling to make ends meet.
Their father worked his whole life to try and break into the industry, but the tragic thing is that systemic inequalities mean he has nothing to show for his life’s work. Like systemic inequality in real life, it is never actually stated outright, but one of Peele’s talents is being able to show what’s going on rather than relying on telling through exposition.
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Kaluuya and Palmer both give compelling performances, with OJ’s quiet enchantment and growing determination to get that ‘Oprah shot’ contrasting well with Emerald’s directedness and openness to wearing her feelings and trauma directly on her sleeve.
Because Emerald as a character is the most forthcoming with her emotions, Keke especially shines and is able to show a vast amount of range throughout the film — although both characters, especially OJ, suffer slightly from a lack of depth. Showing is usually better than telling, but it doesn’t hurt to give us a bit more detail about the people we’re spending the majority of the film with.
One character that Peele does manage to give a lot of depth to is former child star Jupe (Steven Yeun). His experience with Gordy the monkey — the film’s first chronological spectacle — is how the movie starts, with flashbacks occasionally weaved in throughout the film.
At first, it’s hard to reconcile the scared little boy who witnessed Gordy maiming his sitcom co-stars to the man we see in the present day. Present-day Jupe seems unfazed by the whole incident, converting his trauma into a money pot he can dip into and cash in from for the rest of his life.
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Jupe capitalizing off of Gordy’s massacre like this is, at best, bizarre and, at worst, deeply sad, but he isn’t exactly a villain. There are moments where it becomes clear that he is more traumatized by the incident than he lets on — but when a bloodstained Gordy looks directly at a young Jupe and reaches out his hand, he’s also looking directly at us, the audience.
Ultimately, we all have the choice of letting ourselves be taken in by the spectacle or turning away, but with Gordy being shot before Jupe can touch him, the character is left perpetually dissatisfied, hungry for more spectacle, more fame, and more fortune.
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But this greed for something more, constantly reaching out for something outside of his grasp, ultimately didn’t end well for Jupe. He didn’t know when to turn around and say, “nope.” That’s why, along with rich-but-dissatisfied cinematographer Antlers (Michael Wincott), Jupe is such an intriguing contrast with OJ and Emerald.
While their desire for fame might be partly influenced by getting out of poverty, Antlers and Jupes’ chasing of the spectacle shows that it ultimately just comes down to greed. And Peele makes sure they both pay the price for that.
Although Peele puts a lot of work into the characters and symbolism, this, as mentioned, comes at the expense of a tighter, more nuanced plot. But the CGI and directing in and of itself is stunning. Peele’s trademark ability to build tension through silence, of course, makes a return here, but he also goes into a lot of uncharted territories.
As a Marvel movie nerd, I’m used to supernatural creatures and CGI punching me in the face, but in Nope, the effects are a lot more subtle and, in turn, realistic. It makes the characters’ response to what they think is a UFO all the more believable because it doesn’t look out of place in the world that Peele has crafted.
Peele is also innovative through his use of perspective, allowing us to see what the monster can see, and throughout it, all is selective with what gore he actually shows. It would have been easy to make this film extremely gory, but forcing us to work out what’s going on through the raining of blood and distant, disembodied, echoey screams is a lot more terrifying.
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Ultimately, Nope is a compelling addition to Peele’s growing collection. As he combines the thought-provoking morals of getting Out and the horror elements of Us, Nope demonstrates the clear and original evolution of Peele’s craft.
Nope is released in UK theatres on August 12, 2022, and is available to watch in US theatres now.