Is Jordan Peele The M. Night Shyamalan of This Decade?

Despite a relentless marketing campaign running up to its long-awaited release, Nope came and went. Sure, it endeared a good cross-section of the critically-inclined viewership (here’s my take on this movie), but it somehow failed to leave a lasting mark on general audiences, thus disappearing from the collective cultural consciousness within a span of a few short weeks, and at this point it might be a good idea to ask why that is.

On one hand, it might be entirely plausible that Nope was simply outplayed and overshadowed by a few more appealing alternatives vying for the attention of your statistical cinemagoer. After all, Top Gun: Maverick has been reigning supreme all throughout the summer season, with a few others trailing closely behind (e.g. Thor: Love and Thunder and Bullet Train). Therefore, in these trying times of economic uncertainty, raging inflation and soaring energy prices, it isn’t too unreasonable to assume that viewers would flock to more predictably satisfying entertaining instead of placing their bets on a veritable mystery box movie with a likely cerebral slant.

It is also equally possible that the short cultural life expectancy of a movie like Nope (or most movies for that matter) is just a fact of life at this point because viewers are constantly bombarded with new and fresh content both in cinemas and at home on their myriad streaming services. So, who has the time to champion any movie for more than half a second if Prey is right around the corner and then the festival season will make landfall as viewers choose tribal affiliation based on the hype coming out of Venice and TIFF, as they get behind the new Aronofsky film or the new Baumbach production. FOMO continues to be the only game in town after all.

While these factors might be operating in parallel, there may be something else afoot, which is directly linked to the film itself and to the way Jordan Peele’s cultural footprint has been shaping up ever since his auspicious debut Get Out took the world by storm. I may have touched on this notion in my own review of the movie already, but it bears reiterating that a lot of the mixed-to-negative reception Nope received from critics and general audiences alike had to do with an alleged lack of focus and/or viewer expectations going unfulfilled. Again, to repeat myself I don’t particularly agree with the idea of calling Peele’s movie unfocused or thematically undecided and I firmly believe this response has more to do with what the viewers wanted the film to be, rather than what it truly was trying to be instead.

Critics and viewers like trends and if there is a trilogy to be spotted somewhere in the wild, you can be damn well sure someone is going to fish it out. Equally, filmmakers (and artists, in general) are well known for re-treading the same ground, coming back to the well and revisiting the same demons and obsessions many times over. Rainer Werner Fassbinder famously remarked once that every director effectively keeps remaking the same movie over and over again, so it was just an organic assumption to expect that Nope would continue in the vein of social satire of Peele’s other two movies and – even better so – that it would complete some kind of a thematic trilogy.

But it didn’t.

Despite the fact racial politics and societal strife underpinning Peele’s vision of modern America are markedly present within the narrative, Nope places its focus elsewhere and prefers to explore the viewer’s relationship with spectacle and Hollywood-adjacent notoriety, all to the tune of a myriad movie references and other related points of interest. Put succinctly, it looks as though Nope has been at the very least slightly misunderstood because the viewers were expecting it would be something else, so they had their sights calibrated to spot things that weren’t necessarily there, while they may have missed out on the film’s intended appeal.

This isn’t the first time a filmmaker has become a victim of the mismatch between audience expectations of what the movie ‘should be’ and what the movie ‘was trying to be’. One notable example of this phenomenon involves a certain M. Night Shyamalan whose meteoric rise at the turn of the century with a string of thrillers set the temperature of the genre for years to come. However, a curious by-product of the massive success of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable coupled with Shyamalan’s own proclivity for tongue-in-cheek myth-making, led the audiences and critics to expect a very specific kind of storytelling from any Shyamalan movie for years to come.

Ask anyone what the defining feature of a Shyamalan movie is and you’ll hear one word – twists. That’s the brand he had built with his auspicious breakout hits. He was ‘the twist guy’ who truly leaned into this brand so much that he effectively engineered his own career demise because eventually it became impossible to match the high expectations audiences were walking into his movies with. Because the viewers ended up so finely tuned to this idea they were always supposedly expecting a grand narrative-redefining twist to come at some point in the story, they would all – without fail – completely omit the fact all Shyamalan movies were secretly harbouring highly personal messaging relating to self-discovery and actualization, and that Shyamalan himself was interested in a meta aspect of commenting on storytelling itself, while telling you these twisty stories.

So, when Signs came out, many viewers were actively venturing to see this movie expecting a twist and even though the movie was viscerally effective enough to succeed as a primal spectacle, some dissonant voices began emerging within the discourse surrounding the movie because the twist wasn’t delivered and that maybe Shyamalan had lost his magic touch. Somehow, it didn’t feel like the story resolved in a way that would come close to how The Sixth Sense concluded, even though in its own unique way, the movie came together in a spectacular fashion. Nobody was paying attention to how the characters perceived their own place in the universe, which is what this movie was truly about. Aliens and their fear of water were all that mattered and – granted – if you watched Signs through this highly specific lens, it would surely look infuriatingly unfocused and at least somewhat disappointing.

I believe a similar process may have been set in motion when it comes to how Jordan Peele’s movies are perceived culturally and at least from where I am sitting the parallels look plainly obvious. His previous two movies successfully inserted themselves into the emerging subgenre of what we refer to as ‘elevated horror’ wherein the genre story is a front for a specific allegorical interpretation, i.e. The Babadook is really about a post-partum depression, Hereditary about grief and Get Out together with Us are about racial divides in modern America. Simples. In contrast to Shyamalan, though, I don’t necessarily believe Peele himself has ever tried to turn the thematic symmetry between his movies into a brand or a shtick, even with complete lucid self-awareness of building a larger-than-life persona. I’d much rather believe this was something that happened to him instead; that this brand of ‘the racial satire guy’ was applied to him by audiences and critics alike.

And now that he has come out with a movie that only superficially revisits these ideas – because he still cares about them, there is no escape from that – it was all too easy for everyone to immediately recalibrate their lenses to see Nope as a continuation of a trend, as opposed to a wholly original thematic venture. Thus, I think it is our responsibility as viewers to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes and end up burying Peele under a metric tonne of our own expectations, sell him short when he doesn’t deliver on something we want his movies to do, and effectively wait a decade and a half to reappraise his work and give it the attention it sorely deserved when it mattered to the man’s career in Hollywood.

In a way, I find it ironically fascinating that so many reviews have attempted to compare Nope to Signs, though only in completely superficial terms. It is correct to see the symmetry between both movies as they are Spielbergian in flair and they both handle a backdoor alien invasion idea. In fact, I bet Peele was consciously referring to Shyamalan’s movie in at least one or two places, if only to wink at the viewer in tacit acknowledgment of this glaring similarity. At the same time, the most interesting connective tissue between these two movies is cultural – Nope seems to have been misappraised, just as Shyamalan’s Signs was in 2002. Just as Shyamalan’s movie wasn’t about the aliens and the twist, Nope isn’t about the trials and tribulations of black people in cinema.

So let’s make sure we don’t need a decade to come to terms with the fact Nope is a masterpiece on its own terms, even if it would have been much more convenient if it was an outright cap to some kind of a thematic trilogy. And if the parallel between Peele and Shyamalan’s cultural trajectory holds any relevance, we should remain equally hopeful and excited for what Peele does next. After all, having completed Signs, M. Night Shyamalan crafted the best movie of his career, The Village, and nobody saw its genius at the time either, myself included. It took me fifteen years to notice the genius of that movie and I won’t be making that mistake again because it’s too easy to look at a movie as something we expected as opposed to what it truly is. So, you can rest assured I am now looking forward to Peele’s next movie with bated breath, even if it takes another three or four years.

And so, my watch begins…

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