Film Reviews


Published August 12, 2022
Nope.. the movie where the UFO frightens the horses

Jordan Peel has enjoyed a meteoric rise from the margins to the mainstream in the space of only three features. Peel’s debut effort, Get Out (2017), had all the hallmarks of a cult classic. An off-beat zombie movie with a political subtext, it gave a dark, satirical twist to those racial anxieties that have divided the United States from the days of slavery to the present. In his follow-up, Us (2019), Peel created a more elaborate mix of B-movie horror and racially-charged metaphors. The films tapped into the social tensions of the Trump era, prompting many to hail this writer-director-producer as one of the representative filmmakers of our age.

This week saw the launch of Peel’s much-anticipated third film, Nope. Amid the predictable hype there has been a good deal of confusion, firstly about the title, then the plot. I’ve done my homework, reading what Peel himself has said about the film, although he is justifiably reluctant to explain everything. If we take “nope” as an acronym for Not Of Planet Earth, that’s the straightforward explanation. A more subtle one suggests a refusal to buy into the daily spectacle of life in a media-saturated world.

“Spectacle” is the word Peel has used repeatedly in reference to this movie, so it must be taken as the key to unlocking its mysteries. The problem for a critic is to analyse the themes without giving away too much of the story. One spends much the film wondering what exactly is going on, so it would be wrong to serve up a cheat sheet. The confusion is part of the game, and not unpleasurable as such.

There are two seemingly disconnected storylines, one concerns a  brother and sister who run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, the only African-American-owned horse trainers in the west. OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) have been left in charge of a failing business, after their father (Keith David) is killed in a bizarre accident when struck by a coin that falls from the sky amid an unexpected shower of debris. The Haywoods can trace their family back to the black jockey who rode the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s first moving picture, but history counts for little in an industry obsessed with time and money.

On the Haywoods’ ranch, OJ is becoming aware of another presence – a flying saucer that hides in a cloud, appearing every so often, driving the horses into a frenzy and stopping all electrical activity. The Haywoods think that if they can only get a good photo of the UFO – “the Oprah shot” – their money troubles will be over. With the aid of Angel (Brandon Perea), an inquisitive salesman from an electronics shop, they set up a bank of cameras to try and capture the elusive ship.

In one scene, Angel reels off the standard ideas about who the aliens might be, and what they want. It’s a list of science fiction clichés, but it soon becomes clear this particular UFO is not going to conform to any of the stereotypes. With each appearance it grows more menacing.

The other story, which intersects with the Haywoods’ tale but often feels beside-the-point, concerns Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) the owner of a western theme park to whom OJ sells horses. Unlikely as it seems, Jupe was a child movie star, and is still living off his faded celebrity. The major incident for which Jupe will always be known occurred during the filming of a successful TV series called Gordy’s Home, about a family bringing up a chimpanzee. When a set of balloons exploded while the family was celebrating the chimp’s birthday, the animal went berserk, killing and injuring the other cast members. Only Jupe survived, an escape that makes him believe his life is charmed.

Anyone might be permanently traumatised by watching the chimp’s bloodthirsty rampage, but Jupe is almost proud of the experience. He has set up a little shrine next to his office, filled with Gordy memorabilia, and charges hefty fees to ghoulish visitors. He has also become aware of the UFO and has found a way of making it into a tourist attraction.

Both the Haywoods and Jupe have dreams of exploiting the flying saucer for their own purposes, but it proves increasingly dangerous to try and squeeze this unknown entity into a commercial scheme. The saucer, in its way, is as dangerous and unpredictable as the chimpanzee who resists attempts at domestication and reverts to sheer animal brutality when he feels himself threatened.

It’s best I don’t reveal too much about the nature of the UFO, but it’s a very different proposition from those friendly bubbleheads you might remember from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). As Peel has made his reputation with social and political metaphors, the most intriguing part of this film is to figure out what he is trying to say about America, or the world, today. My best guess is that Nope is an allegory about what happens when we try to profit from forces we barely understand. As such, it’s an indictment of figures such as Donald Trump and Alex Jones, who have found that playing on popular fears and prejudices, inciting mob hatred, can be a great money-spinner.

Judging by the reactions to the FBI’s raid on Mar-a-Lago, there are many people in the United States looking forward to violent uprisings and civil war. The politicians and activists encouraging this mentality for their own selfish reasons, are playing with forces that can easily spiral out of control. But Peel is not addressing the promoters and perpetrators of violence so much as the vast mass of the population that has become addicted to the extreme spectacles unfolding on TV and computer screens. We’ve developed a appetite for the stuff, so long as it is consumed vicariously, never impacting on the circumstances of our own lives.

Yet as the characters in this film find out, once we succumb to the dark fascination of the spectacle, we are helping to feed the beast. It’s fundamentally Nietzsche’s famous warning that when one stares deeply into the abyss, the abyss also stares deeply into you. Peel’s solution is to refuse the spectacle – to say “Nope!” It may sound as simplistic as Nancy Regan’s solution to the drug problem (“Just say ‘No’”), but there’s a feeling of empowerment in such denials. Say “Nope” to the spectacle, and “Yes” to life. It sounds good, but how do we actually do it?


Written & directed by Jordan Peel

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Wren Schmidt, Keith David, Jacob Kim

USA/Japan, rated M, 131 mins


 Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 August, 2022