Jordan Peele’s NOPE opens with a chimpanzee wearing one of those outfits that barely contained Gene Kelly’s biceps in An American in Paris (1951). Unlike Kelly, Gordy the chimpanzee doesn’t dance across a movie screen awash in pastels. The striped sleeves of his cotton shirt are stained and dripping with blood. Gordy’s having a tough day on the set of his sitcom. He’s been forcibly removed from his natural habitat in order to cheer up Americans with heaping doses of canned laughter. In front of a live studio audience, Gordy rebels. We meet him mid-rampage while he’s attacking his co-stars. Under the bright, artificial lights, he’s reached his limit with the flashing APPLAUSE sign and its insistent, damning demand for praise.
This scene is potent, psychologically disturbing, and eerily realized. But it doesn’t prepare the audience for the tonal departure that follows. Midway through NOPE, Peele abandons the atmosphere of existential dread that suffused his first two films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). His new film lands instead in the familiar territory of a summer blockbuster. Rather than sustaining the unease, NOPE relies on a relentless adversary to command our attention. As the film’s pacing picks up speed, it morphs into a monster movie. A shark (Jaws) that’s been revisited and repurposed many times as giant worms (Tremors), a cyborg (The Terminator), or angry spirits who refuse to give up the ghost (Poltergeist).
This time around the villain is an alien. In this movie genre, it doesn’t matter what physical form the enemy takes. Death itself is what’s ultimately inescapable. Human beings aren’t equipped with the means to defeat it but audiences love to watch actors make the attempt. OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) do everything they can to stave it off. But as a family, they’re already operating in the red.
Their father Otis Sr. (Keith David) dies mere moments after his on-screen introduction. Neither sibling ever mentions their mother. Late in the movie, Peele aims the camera at what must be a framed photograph of her. When and how did she die? Or did she leave them? What was she like? What was their relationship with her? What was her marriage like? All of these questions stay unanswered. Her backstory is just one of about 11,000 other mysteries that the filmmaker brushes past or deliberately omits. By now, Peele must have earned a PhD in the field of Withholding Information.
The need for an explanation, to understand the Haywoods and the history of their family dynamics, is a frustrating and futile waste of mental energy. Peele casts the Haywoods’ past aside in favor of action and forward motion. OJ and Em’s mourning period for OJ Sr. comes to a quick and decisive close when they realize a spaceship has been hovering above their horse ranch in the California desert. What Peele doesn’t withhold are regular glimpses of the alien itself. As previously conceived in our shared popular imagination, UFOs (now called UAPs as one character points out) arrive in the shape of flying saucers. And little green men with praying mantis eyes emerge with scary ray guns.
Peele cleverly spins this trope around by making the flying saucer itself an organic being. At first, it resembles an open-mouthed sand dollar vacuuming up people and horses as a series of light hors d’oeuvres. Later, in pursuit of several larger entrées — i.e. the Haywoods and their newly formed gang of strays — the alien transforms into an angry, expanding set of crepey labia. Imagine a bedazzled, masticating hole at the center of a set of flying drapes; or, a many-ribboned kite coming unglued. It’s only frightening in a Freudian way — if you have mommy issues (see Psycho) or are, more generally, gynophobic. Is this then a case of Mrs. Haywood’s revenge for having been written out of the script? Is it her way of saying á la Fatal Attraction, “I’m not going to be ignored!”
Kaluuya’s OJ is an introvert, a cowboy who’s as verbally and emotionally laconic as Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis Del Mar, and a hundred other movie cowboys before them who had very little to say on the big screen. His terse approach to the world, and his retreat from it, encourage even more questions. Who or what caused the harm: an ex; his mother; his father; the United States of American Racists; all of the above? We don’t find anything out about this unspoken hurt. What we see is the end result. A man who’s so chill, such a Zen master of detachment, he remains clear-headed under the stress and duress of fending off an alien menace.
Kaluuya also plays it cool so Keke Palmer can command the spotlight. Everytime she appears on screen the audience is rooting for her. Em is a maximalist, an extrovert, her brother’s opposite. Her character articulates what her brother can not. She normalizes the absurdity of an alien threat with common sense, perspicacity, wit and tenacity. Peele writes one line of dialogue about Em’s recently failed lesbian relationship. The director doesn’t expand on her sexuality, or anyone else’s. NOPE is a strictly platonic, PG-13 movie, but rated R for the violence. There are no crushes, flirtations, spouses, or paired-up lovers. Only the alien presents a terrifying pair of lips to inflict its all-consuming kiss of death.
Flashbacks to Gordy’s descent into chaos occasionally drift back into the narrative. They turn out to be Ricky Park’s (Steven Yeun) memories, a neighbor of the Haywoods. Park was a child actor on the sitcom. He witnessed Gordy’s murderous attack up close and saved himself by hiding underneath a table. As an adult, he runs an amusement park staged to look like a town in the Old West. When he presents an arena show for his guests, Park suits up in a flamingo red outfit punctuated with a white cowboy hat. He keeps a gallery of souvenirs there for rabid fans to marvel over. The trauma he experienced as a boy has been repurposed as kitsch.
Park’s story as it relates to the alien’s and the Haywoods themselves is another murky plot point. Park buys horses from OJ’s ranch and feeds them to the alien in front of an awestruck crowd. He hasn’t learned anything from watching Gordy go berserk. If a chimpanzee can’t be tamed, how on Earth does he believe a ravenous extraterrestrial will bend to his will? And, by selling his horses to Park, is OJ complicit? Does OJ unknowingly draw the alien’s ire towards himself and his sister because of this questionable transaction?
Defeating the bad guy is a cathartic experience for the hero or heroine of adventure stories. Before “The End” appears on screen, they’ve conducted a personal exorcism involving, say, vengeance or grief. As embodied by OJ’s taciturn approach to the alien problem, combined with Em’s kinetic one, NOPE emphatically states, the past (as in the loss of their parents) shouldn’t matter. OJ and Em find imaginative and practical ways to get themselves out of trouble. That’s why the audience goes along with them for the ride. They’re willing to let go of trauma the way children let go of helium-filled balloons. Whereas Park continues to make a meal out of his played out claim to fame. That animus is fueled by the corrosive influence of show business. He makes a deal with the devil, or a bargain with the alien, and profits from it by getting eaten alive.
NOPE is now playing in theaters.