Jordan Peele’s Extraterrestrial Americana

Jordan Peele’s Extraterrestrial Americana

Cowboys and Aliens

Jordan Peele’s spectacles.


When Black people say “no” or one of its variants in response to some stressful or hazardous situation, we both affirm and negate the circumstances before us. An assertion of agency, “nope” acknowledges the problem while also refusing to further engage. To say “nope” is to stretch a moment of fear, intrigue, or suspicion into a chance for self-assessment and playmaking. Can I survive this? Does the risk outweigh the reward? Do I want to be here? Nope? Time for a different move, usually an exit.

Nope, the third feature film from the director and screenwriter Jordan Peele, taps into the sense of apprehension and opportunity that its title evokes. The story follows two siblings from a family of horse trainers, Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) and her older brother Otis Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), as they deal with an alien force that looms over their Southern California ranch. Inspired by Steven Spielberg blockbusters like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the paranoid thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock and M. Night Shyamalan, and two distinct forms of Americana—UFO conspiracies and frontier lore—Nope uses the Haywood siblings’ quest for family glory to explore the nature of spectacle.

The film isn’t as pointed or distinctive as Peele’s career highlight, Get Out, but it is decisively epic, trading the intricate thematic architecture of Peele’s past movies for widescreen tableaux and outsize thrills. A reflection on the dangers and delights of the entertainment industry, Nope takes a panoramic view of showbiz, nosing around back lots, stalking through animal stables, and probing the psyches of actors and creators. Yet this is not merely another solipsistic story touting the magic of filmmaking, celebrities, and Hollywood insiders. Peele’s survey of how the dream factory sausage gets made is also attuned to audiences, tracing how our bottomless appetite for spectacle warps our sense of danger and challenging the erasure of Black perspectives and contributions within film.

Before Nope centers the supernatural and spectacular, it focuses on the mundane: Otis Jr. (OJ) and Emerald are tanking the family business. In the opening minutes of the film, Otis Sr. is struck by debris from the sky and killed, leaving his children with a sprawling horse ranch and a company, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, that supplies and manages the animals for commercials and films. Six months later, OJ and Em haven’t yet found stability. On the set of a commercial, OJ is terse and dutiful, more workman than showman as he waits for the shoot to begin. He seems to find horses more agreeable than people, speaking in a reluctant grumble whenever a crew member addresses him and brooding over his sister’s perpetual tardiness.

Emerald, a natural charmer and flirt who bounces between girlfriends and gigs, is impish and silver-tongued. Although she arrives late to the set, she effortlessly commandeers the room. The Haywoods, she explains in the middle of what is supposed to be a briefing on horse safety, descend from the unknown Black jockey featured in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, the 1878 series of photos that was a precursor to motion pictures. Emerald boasts that her ancestor was “the very first stuntman, animal wrangler, and movie star all rolled into one,” a legacy that she and her brother fail to uphold when they are fired following an outburst by one of their horses. They head home to picturesque Agua Dulce, Calif., and make a stop to sell the horse to a neighboring amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim. It’s implied that the sale will help recoup the money they lost by botching the commercial, but OJ says that when things get better, he plans on buying back the horse, one of 10 he’s already pawned to pay the bills.

The Haywoods get their first whiff of the otherworldly at the end of that lousy workday. The siblings are smoking and drinking in defeat when one of their remaining horses, Ghost, gets loose and nervously gallops around the property. Then the power flickers, and the runaway horse vanishes, its final whinny echoing across the night sky. OJ catches a glimpse of the culprit, a quick-moving ovular blur that disappears into the clouds. He is left speechless, certain that he saw a flying saucer and that Ghost is dead. Emerald consoles her brother by hatching a get-rich-quick scheme: If they can score definitive footage of a UFO, which they call the “Oprah shot,” they can sell it and ride off into the sunset.

They buy recording equipment and set it up around the ranch, placing a large plastic horse in an open field as a decoy. The UFO comes, but the plan goes off the rails: They don’t get the shot, they lose a real horse, and Angel (Brandon Perea), the squirrelly technician who mounted all the cameras, learns their secret. After seeing the entity up close, a spooked Emerald wants to abandon the ranch, but OJ declines. “I got mouths to feed,” he says dutifully.

The line rings with irony as Peele returns to Jupiter’s Claim. The western-themed amusement park is owned by a former child actor who has also been in contact with the UFO. As part of a new attraction, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) solicits the UFO and sacrifices his purchased Haywood horses to it, all under the assumption that he is interacting with an alien civilization that he calls the “viewers.” Peele gives Jupe an interesting backstory, but his motives are hazy and self-sabotaging. A flashback shows that when Jupe worked on a sitcom that used chimpanzees, one of the animals snapped one day and mauled his costars. Jupe had a front-row seat to the violence and the subsequent killing of the chimp, but he seems to look on the event fondly and collects memorabilia from the day. When he describes the event to OJ and Em earlier in the film, he calls it a “spectacle,” a sense of wonder tingeing his voice. The word and that awe also surface during the new attraction, but the show doesn’t go as planned, with the UFO veering off-script to swoop down and suck up far more than the horse.

The sequence is one of the film’s most harrowing and delicious moments. The crowd of 40 people gets lifted off their feet in a swirl of dust and screams, then wedged into a dark, aqueous tunnel and swallowed by a freakish maw. The UFO, it turns out, is a wild and hungry animal rather than an extraterrestrial vehicle. Peele has taken alien abduction, a trope that has otherwise been completely consigned to kitsch, and restored primal fear to it.

Peele has said he considers Nope a work of horror, and the abduction scene and a handful of others support that designation, but the film invests most deeply in the techniques and iconography of westerns and ufology. Shot extensively with IMAX cameras by the cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Tenet, Interstellar, Ad Astra), the movie brings Hollywood sheen to a genre of filmmaking shrouded in doubt. UFO footage is normally characterized by inscrutability, but Hoytema mines it for tension, the camera anxiously scanning the vast, exquisitely rendered landscape for the abnormal. Each time the view shifts and teeters, the startlingly blue sky, striated mountains, and rolling hills of sand and shrubs turn from picturesque to menacing—a whiplash that is especially pronounced once Angel and the Haywoods learn that the creature spends most its time hiding behind an unmoving cloud. Beautiful but brutal, the shroud and the monster above it evoke the violence of the frontier.

In the aftermath of the horror at Jupiter’s Claim and a bracing encounter with the alien on the Haywood ranch, OJ, the trained animal whisperer, shares his ideas about the creature. It seems to prey only on people or animals that look up at it, to view the ranch as its territory, and to require time between feedings—traits that underscore Peele’s ideas about what happens when audiences feed spectacles and make them monstrous. OJ suggests they can use these characteristics to snag that elusive Oprah shot, a predictability that betrays the limits of Peele’s reveal, which depends on an alien animal of unknown origin acting like terrestrial wildlife. But the creature’s legibility sets the stage for a thrilling third act replete with stunts (on horseback and motorcycle), an elaborate and colorful trap, a betrayal, and homages to Twister, Akira, and Scorpion King. It is a true spectacle: ornate, indulgent, and riveting.

The popcorn thrills of the concluding set piece also read as a response to the long-standing criticism among Black viewers that horror movies treat Black characters as cannon fodder and downplay or erase Black sensibilities. Black parodists like Keenen Ivory Wayans (Scary Movie), his younger brother Marlon Wayans (A Haunted House), and the YouTube comedy group RDCworld1 have lambasted these tropes for years, but their pastiches prioritize humor over critique. And even when it’s more pointedly satirized—as in Scream 2, which opens with two Black characters being gruesomely killed at a movie theater after one of them bemoans the racism of horror movies—the charge sticks.

Get Out responds to that history by embedding an audience proxy in the story. Rod, the best friend and eventual savior of the main character Chris, heckles his buddy throughout the film, providing running commentary on the ominous undertones—racist comments; creepy, seemingly hypnotized Black servants—of Chris’s weekend getaway at the home of his white girlfriend’s family. “I told you not to go in that house,” he concludes at the end of the film.

Nope’s staging is more naturalistic. Peele trusts his overwhelmed characters to forge a path through the story’s obstacles and frights without obvious metacommentary. Although the Haywoods both utter “Nope!” as they wrangle with the wild animal on high, it’s always clear why they stay and fight and what they seek. That legibility is the film’s boldest spectacle, and the biggest point of departure from Peele’s work thus far. The heroes of Nope do not want simply to survive or “not die first” or “tell everyone”; they want to live.

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