Jordan Peele’s growth as a filmmaker has been one of the most exciting developments in cinema in the last five years. It’s hard to go up from a debut as strong and clearly articulated as 2017’s Get Out, but Peele’s managed to do it. Rather than digging further into the pointed metaphors that made his first film such a bold statement, however, he’s moved toward unique original stories with smart observations at their core.
Peele’s follow-ups—2019’s Us and his latest, Nope give us representational characters the way Get Out did. Rather, they give us a story and characters informed by larger themes. In Nope especially, the emphasis is on the story, with several big ideas floating around it, not unlike the alien hovering outside the Haywood Hollywood Horses ranch.
In fact, Nope contains so many concepts that it can be a hard movie to wrap your brain around. Typical of Peele, visual symbolism abounds, but here the meaning behind the images isn’t always obvious. Some of the themes complement each other, but they don’t all cohere into a single statement. Nope feels like a collection of things Peele’s had on his mind, joined together by a narrative. All of these ideas are worth considering, but some stand out specifically.
Here’s a breakdown of some of Nope’s most prominent themes:
Nope’s large floating alien may be the center of the film’s marketing, but conversations after viewing the movie (and a number of essays) are all about Gordy, the chimpanzee star of Nope’s in-universe sitcom Gordy’s Home. Gordy’s violent on-set outburst starts the film, and is called back to throughout. But what does he have to do with the main story?
With Gordy, Peele sets an example of what happens when we underestimate creatures we think are powerless only to learn they’re capable of fighting back. That idea comes back in play when Steven Yeun’s Ricky “Jupe” Park—whose Gordy-based trauma we’ll get to in a moment—turns the alien into an attraction at his theme park, Jupiter’s Claim. Jupe, like the Gordy’s Home producers, thinks he’s got a novelty on his hands until that novelty expresses its true nature.
Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ Haywood and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), also want to turn the alien into a payday. However, as horse trainers, both of them understand animal behavior, and use that knowledge to their advantage. “He tried to tame a predator,” OJ says simply after discovering the alien devoured Jupe and the entire Jupiter’s Claim Star Lasso Experience audience. That’s a mistake OJ and Emerald know never to make.
Jupe was a child when he experienced the Gordy’s Home incident firsthand, and it clearly weighs heavily on him as an adult. Rather than process it, however, he’s commodified it to keep his career afloat. Jupe’s no stranger to exploiting his own life for money and attention. He owns a theme park partly staffed by his own family, who were also once the subject of a reality show, as seen on the poster in his office.
An entire section of Jupe’s office is dedicated to the Gordy’s Home incident, a shrine to the worst day of his life that he’ll show for a fee. He tells OJ and Emerald that a Dutch couple once paid him for the privilege of spending the night in the room, which includes artifacts like a shoe with a single drop of blood on it, and the shirt Jupe was wearing the day it all happened. He tells Emerald about the SNL sketch satirizing the event, saying it explains it better than he ever could. When Peele shows us the actual attack, it’s far from what Jupe describes.
After an extended flashback of the event, Peele cuts back to current-day Jupe, who appears to be lost in his traumatic memory. Elements of that trauma unintentionally leak out into other parts of Jupe’s life. He dresses his kids in homemade alien costumes to promote the Star Lasso Experience, but the outfits have thick, ape-like fur on them, with faces eerily resembling the Panavision camera casings on the Gordy’s Home set.
Jupe has never been able to shed the incident, but he’s unable to let it go because doing so would mean losing cultural cache. So much of Jupe’s life has involved an audience that he can’t survive without one. When he encounters the alien, he thinks it’s a ship here to monitor Earthlings. That he calls the alien a “viewer” is telling in this regard. However, like a lot of things in Nope, that term has a double meaning.
The disaster at the Star Lasso Experience isn’t the first time we see the alien. It is, however, the first time we understand what the flying saucer actually is. It’s not a spacecraft full of little green men (or, for that matter, furry creatures with big, pale faces) looking at a camera feed. It’s a singular creature that wants only to consume any living thing in its path.
Accuracy aside, Jupe’s term “viewer” is the first description we’re given of the alien. His use of it suggests an anonymous being looking for entertainment. To have that immediately followed by the creature indiscriminately devouring living beings and spraying back out what it can’t digest presents a damning metaphor for the concept of art (and trauma) as content, and “viewers” as undiscerning vacuums for it.
To be clear, Peele isn’t deriding his audience for liking The Bachelorette. Rather, it’s the corporate perspective of viewers as algorithm-defined demographics that resembles Nope’s gray, gobbling void. Consider the movies and shows Marvel churns out with little regard for overworked VFX artists or the inferior product their demand creates. Think of Netflix releasing Red Notice and The Gray Man to critical derision, while cutting back on “vanity projects” like The Irishman or The Power of the Dog—all based on mysterious performance metrics. What are these if not attempts to feed the gaping maw of the viewer-as-consumer?
It’s also notable that the first human victims we see the creature devour include Jupe and his maimed Gordy’s Home co-star Mary Jo Elliott. America has a fascination with trauma. As Candice Frederick noted in an essay about two other recent examples tackling this trend, the actual healing of the victims doesn’t matter as much as the drama of their stories. We consume tales of woe, mythologize them and move on, spitting out the bits we can’t stomach.
All of this barely scratches the surface of the thematic richness Nope offers. Peele also brings up the forgotten history of Black stuntpeople in Hollywood and the difficult lives and careers of child actors and below-the-line film crew. The movie’s final act takes a sharp left turn and becomes a joyful love letter to the filmmaking process.
Nope is also full of vibes, from its Spielberg influences to its cultural references to the use of Corey Hart’s cheeseball synth pop classic “Sunglasses at Night.” For all the hyper-intentional choices Peele makes, just as many of these pieces seem like they’re there because he thought they were neat. Even if they don’t all work together, they still work.
Nope offers dizzying commentary that rewards multiple viewings and deeper consideration. While Peele’s latest movie is primarily interested in telling a good story, he knows all good stories have something else going on underneath them, and can’t resist the urge to dig in. Right now, it seems impossible for him to make anything that doesn’t unearth dozens of interesting ideas, even when he’s just having fun.
Abby Olcese is an entertainment writer based in Kansas City. Her work has appeared at /Film, rogerebert.com, Crooked Marquee, Sojourners Magazine, and Think Christian. You can follow her adventures and pop culture obsessions at @abbyolcese.