I guess some animals ain’t fit to be trained.
The scene that encapsulates what Jordan Peele‘s Nope delivers comes somewhat early as OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer) visit the owner and operator of the theme park that serves as their neighbor out in Agua Dulce, California. The purpose of the visit is to sell Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) another of their Hollywood trained horses now that their father’s (Keith David‘s Otis) death has left them with the debts an industry shift towards digital animal effects exacerbated. While there, Em can’t help herself from derailing the business meeting by looking at all the souvenirs from Jupe’s child acting career littered around the office. And he can’t help but excitedly show them the coup de grâce: mementos from the ill-fated sitcom “Gordy’s Home!”
Jupe wants them to experience it. He wants to bask in the reality that he survived a tragic mishap (the titular chimpanzee—played by Terry Notary in mo-cap—to the “Alf”-esque show went crazy one day until he became covered in his costars’ blood) because he generally doesn’t have to actually remember what occurred. Most who come to see his keepsakes already know the story and thus don’t need him to go back there in his mind. Em doesn’t. Rather than tell her in his own words, however, Jupe describes a “Saturday Night Live” skit parodying the nightmare instead. The dark memory rises to the surface, nonetheless and that unavoidable fear while hiding from the chimp’s wrath stops him cold before smiling as though it was ancient history.
That’s show business. We exploit our worst days on this earth for profit. Everything, tangible or esoteric, is valued with dollar signs whether by way of figuring out how much your pain is worth or how much another’s pain should cost. And then we exploit everyone from cast, crew, and audience in the hopes that we ultimately exceed whatever expectation we may have initially crunched by reconciling those two numbers together. We pretend our actions don’t have consequences or that we’re immune to those that inevitably do arise. Should the cast of “Gordy’s Home!” have felt safe? Should a child have ever been allowed on that set? Where does a desire for safety end and the appearance of it begin? What amount of money renders your life forfeit?
To watch what happens to the characters in Nope is to realize the answer is almost always of the “pay what you can” persuasion. Because everyone will compromise their own wellbeing for the allure of fame and fortune. Jupe needs the validation he found in his youth regardless of whether it comes from a three-quarters empty stadium as he risks everything for applause. OJ and Em need money to buy their horses back and perhaps salvage what their father built to help change the game in Hollywood westerns while ensuring his name isn’t forgotten like so many others. Electronics store employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) craves the knowledge that the technology he wields is infallible. Cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) demands immortality. And the sky watches and laughs.
It’s therefore a much simpler film than Peele’s previous output. Its subject is hubris rather than social commentary; its motive is spectacle above morality. So don’t anticipate another gear. I’ll admit that I did for a majority of the runtime and it’s in hindsight that I remember how such a mentality does a disservice to the piece. This is a thrill ride depicting characters who seek to harness the power of the unknown and the reality that nature is never something to trifle with whether in the form of a trained animal or an extraterrestrial being. It doesn’t matter what they want to do with that power—only whether they’re willing to respect it and understand that some things are outside of mankind’s ability to control.
Well, at least in terms of truth. They can’t control what this entity in the sky is doing (disrupting all electronic signals—save those biological ones keeping us alive—and sucking up everything beneath its wide aperture like the bottom of a cowboy hat with a vacuum inside), but they can control its story. That’s why being the first to capture it on film proves so crucial. Except, of course, that being the first doesn’t always bestow you with the responsibility of creating its mythology. That takes its own sort of power and privilege too. It’s why Black cowboys and women pioneers of cinema can be erased. It’s why Jupe can morph his nightmare into commoditized celebrity culture. Although truth can still level the playing field.
Some arrive at that conclusion too late. Some early enough to decide that they don’t care either way. This duality allows Peele to really run with a spectrum of personalities and ambitions, placing them each in the path of oblivion to see whether they run towards it or away (and under what extenuating circumstances might force them to change their choice). And while there are always those too far up their own behinds to acknowledge there is a choice (Wincott perfectly embodies the unyielding auteur destined to die for his craft), there are also those who quickly close the door and mutter, “Nope.” All those times you screamed at characters in a movie for doing something stupid are finally vindicated—even if they still push forward, eyes open.
It’s an exhilarating and fun ride as a result. Maybe more superficial than you’d expect from a Peele film, but no less complex in its characterizations. These are real people confronting an impossible scenario who fail and succeed in equal measure to do what’s necessary to survive. Kaluuya and Palmer might not be as overtly memorable as Wincott, Yeun, and Perea (all somewhat two-dimensional by comparison due to populating specific lanes), but they are the ones who carry the emotional heft. He’s the laconic pragmatist devoid of the people skills necessary to run an entertainment business and she’s the over-zealous extrovert who’s too cavalier to do the same. Together, though, they’re unstoppable. They can save the world. And yet that world might write them out of history anyway.
 (from left) OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) in Nope, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele. Copyright © 2022 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
 Steven Yeun as Ricky “Jupe” Park in Nope, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele. Copyright © 2022 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
 Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood in Nope, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele. Copyright © 2022 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.