After the debacle that was Us (2019) (and there is no hidden message in that statement), I was worried that there would not be another Jordan Peele film I enjoyed. I liked Get Out (2017), not necessarily for its gruesome content, but because of the truths it revealed. Us was all gore, and little message, though some tried to find meaning in it. There is little, and I do not think I can be convinced otherwise. After months of chuckling over the vague trailers attached to Nope, Peele’s latest release, I am happy to report that it is an improvement over his last picture. At the same time, I am not sure what to think of this one. It has a much happier ending, and this practicing Catholic will always appreciate that kind of outcome. It is also bizarre, and this is why I am conflicted. There are action, comedic, dramatic, and horror elements thrown into a movie about aliens, and a side-story about a deranged chimpanzee. The connection of this last bit seems tenuous at best, but it is there all the same. I will do my best to describe the happenings.
Adding to the strange factor, Nope starts with Nahum 3:6, which reads, “I will cast filth upon you, disgrace you and put you to shame.” We then get a brief snippet of the chimpanzee attack in 1998, which happens on the fictional set of one of those family sitcoms popular in those days called Gordy’s Home. The title refers to the name of the primate that has been adopted by a suburban family, but something causes it to snap one day and kill everyone on which it can get its hands. And then it is on to present day when most of the events take place, near the Haywood horse ranch. Their stock is meant for Hollywood, training their equines for commercials and films. The patriarch of the land is Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), and he is out in their pens with his son Otis Jr. “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya). From amongst the clouds above they hear a sound that they take as thunder, preceded by all electronics going out, and followed by a hail of metal objects. One of these strikes Otis Sr., and he dies in the hospital. Roughly six months later, OJ is trying to carry on the family business with the help of his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer). Emerald is more of the showman, whereas OJ is more focused on making sure things are done right. This leads to her being distracted, and their horse, Lucky, bucking when the crew excites the horse for the commercial they have booked. They are summarily kicked off the set, and Emerald and OJ head to Jupiter’s Claim where OJ hopes to conduct business without Emerald’s interference. Jupiter’s Claim, by the way, is a sort of Old West themed roadside attraction run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun). Jupe had starred in Gordy’s Home, and was on set the day that Gordy went, um, bananas. . . . Despite Emerald’s yammering, OJ is able to sell Lucky to Jupe, and the Haywoods return to their land. That night, after a series of strange sounds, one of their other horses gets free and OJ goes to find it. Though dark, by the light of the moon he is able to spot moving quickly but silently through the silvery clouds an unidentified flying object (UFO). Using the security footage, Emerald witnesses something strange, too. Given their failing fortunes, the Haywoods decide that if they can capture verifiable video of a UFO, it will lead to fame and fortune. In order to improve their surveillance equipment, they go to Fry’s (think Best Buy) and enlist the help of one of their technicians, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), to install the cameras around their property. The overly curious Angel, not satisfied with the cryptic reasons the Haywoods give for their new purchases, watches that night as their property is visited by an alien being. However, nothing of what is seen is usable, partly because a praying mantis covers one of the lenses, but also because the creature knocks out all power whenever it approaches. Still, it convinces OJ that this is too dangerous of a situation to leave Lucky in the hands of Jupe, and the next day he decides to retrieve his prize horse. He gets there after Jupe and the scattered guests of his theme park have been swallowed by the ship, which actually turns out to be a living being, leaving only the horse. Meanwhile, Angel has returned to try to witness what is going on, but is just in time for the alien to rain down essentially excrement on the Haywood house. They then opt for an expert to capture the phenomenon, and turn to the director of the commercial from which they had been fired, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). He refuses at first, but seeing a newscast of the reported disappearance of Jupe and his guests at Jupiter’s Claim convinces the cinematographer that there is something unusual happening. Thus, Antlers heads to the Haywood Ranch, and along with Angel, devise a plan for capturing the alien beast on film. With OJ as bait, and Angel and Antlers on a ridge with a hand-cranked motion picture camera, they are able to get the desired footage. What interrupts their carefully laid plans is the arrival of a paparazzi reporter on an electric motorcycle, which distracts the hungry extraterrestrial. OJ does what he can to help, but the creature smells blood. It is now a fight for survival as the monster is trying to suck up everyone it can find. Emerald and OJ each try to get the alien to follow them, and eventually it chases Emerald to Jupiter’s Claim where she is able to release a giant inflatable person. The alien, which at this point looks more like a jellyfish than a flying saucer, swallows the balloon and essentially explodes. And the Haywoods finally get their shot.
As I mentioned in the introduction, it is a little harder to pin down Nope in regards to its message. Typically, Peele has something to say about race. While that plays a small role here, I believe the bigger raison d’etre for this one is that one should not mess with nature. More specifically, you have to treat animals with respect . . . unless they are trying to eat you. Remember Gordy? Before he could maul the young Jupe (Jacob Kim), the chimp is shot in the head. I guess that is what one does in such situations, but it is foreshadowing for what Emerald does to the alien. Still, throughout the movie, it is OJ that drives home the message that these animals need to be handled delicately. It is he who figures out that if you do not look the creature in the eye (wherever that is since it usually looks like a UFO), it will ignore you. It is also his plan that they put in place in the climactic scene, the result of his understanding of what makes most animals tick. It bears mentioning that the Catholic Church follows a similar principle in regards to how we should approach all living things. It is part of its overall pro-life message. Yet, I think that even Pope Francis might be okay with what Emerald does at the end, particularly since what the Haywoods do is somewhat framed as acting to save the world.
As for a larger Catholic discussion of Nope, I could touch on the sacrificial love that the Haywood siblings have for one another. That is always nice to see. Faith does not demand sacrifice of one to another, but it also encourages doing so should the opportunity arise. Either way, this is a theme we have explored many times on The Legionnaire. What jives more with the overall theme of the film is the other side of OJ’s insights on the alien. OJ sees it as a predator with a spirit. So far, so good. The unfortunate thing he adds is that since it has a spirit, that spirit can be broken. Of course, we are talking about a flying monster with a one-track mind for food. Nonetheless, my Catholic sensibilities are piqued by the language. Destroying the spirit of an animal is one thing, particularly when you are dealing with something intended to be wild. There is an air of sadness, at times, when you see a tiger in a zoo, although there are cases where release into their natural habitat would do more harm for the animal than good. Instead, I think about breaking the spirit of a person. What makes OJ a good character, and Emerald too, is that their spirits stay strong. One can compare this to those of Christian martyrs who go to their deaths proclaiming God, knowing what is to befall them for continuing to do so. OJ does it because he is trying to protect his family, his horses, and his land. A person with a broken spirit might simply run away. In his place, I would be hard pressed not to leave. So, God bless OJ.
If you can take a little blood, and some brief drug use, then Nope is worth a trip to the theater. As I have indicated, some of it is hard to understand at times. You also might start laughing without knowing why. Again, it is a strange film. Yet, there are some cool shots in it as well, and it has the happy ending that Peele’s last film lacked. I will take that any day.