One data point is just what it is – a data point. Two data points are the minimum requirement to form a line. And for some reason it seems that quite a lot of critics and casual moviegoers alike decided that two data points are sufficient to form a trend, which is a big no-no for anyone even vaguely aware of how statistics operates as a science. So, in a way, Jordan Peele’s Nope has inadvertently fallen prey to the general public’s lack of awareness that extrapolating from small data sets is at best loaded with uncertainty and most likely completely useless. Because this movie is pretty damn solid, to say the least.
Come to think of it, it is remarkably easy to fall into the Venus flytrap of expectation and somehow assume that Nope was going to slot into the groove of racially informed social satire in the vein of Jordan Peele’s previous two efforts, Us and Get Out. After all, on top of the fallacious statistical bias allowing us to infer trends from abnormally small data sets, the entertainment industry also ‘thinks in threes’ and it would be logical to assume that two similarly themed directorial efforts from an intellectually inclined auteur like Peele would be followed by a third, thus forming a thematic trilogy.
Consequently, the movie opens – after a brief prologue setting up the supernatural element of the narrative that is soon going to come back and haunt the protagonists – with an intriguing and intentionally charged scene in which OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), a black horse wrangler, and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are forced to bud heads with an entire assortment of egos on a set of what looks like a TV commercial. This scene alone is likely to convince the viewer that Peele is about to tread in the same thematic topography with Emerald’s agitated exposé about how African Americans have always been an inseparable part of the history of cinema going all the way back to first recorded moving images. From there it would be easy to recalibrate your own bearings and expect what’s to follow to also slot into this newly-adjusted perspective and – perhaps inadvertently – expect the entire movie to deal with the broad concepts of racial politics in a way Get Out and Us did in the past; thus, conveniently completing a trilogy.
Peele instead defies this apparent inertia-driven expectation and his focus shifts towards something else that was also briefly teased in the very opening of the film, during a cryptic slice of a scene (which is expanded upon later on in the film) where we observe from a point of view of someone cowering under a table on an abandoned TV set as a chimpanzee dressed in blood-soaked dungarees roams around and prods at what looks like lifeless bodies of people the ape shared a scene just a second ago.
This seemingly disposable vignette soon turns out indispensable to deciphering what Nope is interested in exploring, which is the curious relationship between the observer and the spectacle. Sure, you can probably keep looking for racially motivated interpretations of what the movie turns into and in all fairness a proportion of the viewership may have opted to bone-headedly persist in doing so; which might explain why so many reviews of this movie invoke the word ‘unfocused’. Ironically, it just happens it is very much focused, but on something else entirely. It’s still an allegory. It’s still a satire. But it’s a more overt funhouse mirror set up to reflect the strange forces driving some people to work in entertainment and pursue some elusive kind of artistic immortality. Put simply, Nope is a treatise about cinema as an obsessive pursuit.
With this filter applied to our own perspective, Peele’s movie reforms itself into something truly remarkable, a marriage of Signs with Jaws crafted with a mixture of Spielbergian and Kubrickian flair. As such, Nope becomes a bona fide meta-spectacle that looks upon itself with a mixture of self-awareness and reflection. As we hang onto OJ, Emerald and a small subset of secondary characters played by Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott, the movie transports us into the twilight zone between our own universe and that of the silver screen itself where a hunt for proof of extra-terrestrial presence haunting the lives of our protagonists becomes synonymous with a hunt for fame in real life and a hunt for that iconic great white shark in one of the greatest movies ever made.
What is this movie about, after all? Is it about finding solace and meaning in grief? Is it about regurgitating past traumas rippling through our present lives by ways of creating entertainment? Is it about an Ahab-esque pursuit of artistic self-actualization in creating a perfect spectacle? Is it about a Nietzschean notion of obsessing over the spectacle so much that the spectacle turns its gaze onto the pursuer? Is it about all those things?
Probably. In fact, it is most likely impossible to determine what Nope is truly attempting to accomplish upon a single sitting; not necessarily because the movie is impenetrable or obfuscated by cryptic symbolism, even though it is awash with allegory and key references to some of the most iconic pieces of cinema Peele must have grown up adoring, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Shining or Akira. I believe it is imperative to revisit this movie with complete understanding of what it is not, unburdened by expectations brought about by the baggage of Peele’s previous movies. After all, by the time the penny drops and we have that oh-I-get-it moment, we will have missed quite a lot of nuance hidden between the lines of dialogue, in these long, drawn-out pauses Kaluuya leaves all over his on-screen presence, in Steven Yeun’s manic demeanour or in Antlers Holst’s Quint-like swagger.
In any case, I remain firm in my conviction that Nope may be Peele’s most interesting movie. Its narrative make-up combined with what I can only perceive as an ambition to engender a conversation about cinema that will last for generations is what sets it apart from Peele’s previous work, which is already rock solid. It is a deliberate and playful inward look at the industry of conjuring entertainment that somehow manages to provide sanctuary for real human beings haunted by demons of their past and their own distinct obsessions. It’s a movie about moviemaking that crafts a self-aware ongoing commentary on the process of transcribing these demons and obsessions into what is vaguely dubbed as ‘a cinematic language’ while being such a movie at the same time. It smothers the viewer with its intense energy while coddling them with nuggets of meta-referencing any cinephile will pick out with ease. It may not look the part, but Nope is a mature, laser-focused and infuriatingly compelling piece of cinema that will hopefully last in the zeitgeist for long enough that everyone will see how cleverly it comments upon the very mechanics it utilized to sustain its own existence.
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