Probing your mind, not your anus.
A renowned horse trainer and his sister experience strange happenings on their farm. They soon discover the horses are being spooked by something Not Of Planet Earth.
Writer-director Jordan Peele subverts our expectations with such an original story in NOPE that it catches us off-guard. Yes, there is something extra-terrestrial prancing around in the middle foreground; yes, like Peele’s first two offerings, GET OUT and US, there is horror mixed with thriller, but the real meat is a parable on mankind’s hubris.
Laconic OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his flamboyant sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) have just taken over the responsibilities of their Santa Clarita family farm after their father (Keith David) dies in a freak hail of shrapnel from the skies. Peele displays his brilliant economic filmmaking with this bizarre event, conveying how a quarter (a 25-cent piece) embeds itself in David’s skull – we see the man mysteriously struck down while riding, we see an x-ray of the coin, we see the man’s marred face on a hospital bed, dead. In a few quick cutaways – including a key embedded in a horse’s rump – Peele tells the story of Unidentified Falling Objects from the sky, and makes our arm-hairs rise!
Unrelated to the plot is the fact that OJ is THE vendor who provides trained horses to film studios (Haywood Hollywood Horses), both he and Emerald blood-linked to the first “moving picture,” Emerald claiming that the black rider in the famous kinescope of the galloping horse was a great-great-great relative. A nice touch, integrating more black involvement in white rewritten history. [see: SIDEBAR]
Key to the plot is OJ’s desperation to keep his farm afloat, forcing him to deal in horseflesh with a local theme park owner named Jupe (Steven Yeun), who runs Jupiter’s Claim, a desert hole with a cute cartoon cowboy mascot (which kills me!), and whose current feature attraction is visitations from a mysterious giant entity that makes horses disappear. A true Close Encounter Of The Second Kind.
The movie opened with a flashback of young Jupe as a boy actor, on the set of a sitcom, with a chimp mascot (Terry Notary mo-caps the chimp – he was Rocket in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES). We see the chimp go berserk (dare I say ‘apeshit’?), killing all the actors and seemingly sparing young Jupiter. (Hold that thought, as the movie progresses; this incident would illustrate why one man survives this story and one man does not.)
OJ has his own Close Encounter with something that seems to be hiding amongst the clouds above his farm, enlisting the aid of an over-enthusiastic electronics salesman, Angel (Brandon Perea) and a reclusive filmmaker, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), to flush out the entity. They flush too hard…
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We have been conditioned to regard “extra-terrestrial aliens” as anthropomorphic beings (DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, SIGNS, et al), so we are still expecting to see Grays two-thirds into Jordan Peele’s film! But Peele’s entity that is Not Of Planet Earth, as overwhelming as it is, is more of a “lower” life form – not humanoid in the least, not interested in communicating, not interested in musical harmony or terraforming or anal probing; like any animal, it operates on a more limbic level, simply seeking food.
Jupe thinks to exploit this animal, taunting it daily to appear and abscond with his offering of fresh horse, to amuse his park audiences. Because he survived the chimp attack as a young boy, he has a false sense of empowerment, thinking he has some mythic bond with animals. He is wrong. As the film progresses, we see more of that flashback, and come to realize that shooters took down the chimp mere seconds before it killed Jupe…
Jupe doesn’t realize he has NO bond with animals.
OJ on the other hand is continually shown as connected psychically with his horses, an empathy that allows him to ride bareback, easily communicate his commands and retrieve runaways.
And this is where the flashback with the chimp becomes analogous to the current cloud-sized creature above the farm and the theme park. The chimp (a true “alien intelligence”) was amongst humans so long they took its presence for granted and thought it was under their control – until they found out the hard way that it never was. So too, Jupe has grown accustomed to the alien intelligence above his theme park and takes it for granted, thinking he has it under control. And whereas shooters arrived just in time to save young Jupe, now there is no one to save him when the animal goes berserk.
Contrast Jupe’s treatment of the alien with OJ’s interaction; OJ would bring his empathy, knowledge and respect of animals to his dealings with the alien, knowing it is a force not to be taken for granted, discerning it as more beast than upright thinker.
In the final frames, when we see that OJ has survived (even though it was played as though he sacrificed his life), at first it seemed unnecessarily saccharine (a Happy Ending for the Great Unwashed conditioned to being spoon-fed pap), but then I realized that to vindicate OJ’s empathy and to accentuate Jupe’s hubris, OJ had to live and Jupe had to die. A strong message from a strong filmmaker.
Written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele (with nerve-wracking sound design by Michael Abels), NOPE is a slow burn that misdirects easily due to the dearth of intelligent American cinema; everybody wants aliens – Peele delivers, but not in the way we are accustomed! With a sure and steady hand (reminiscent of Hitchcock and Eastwood), Peele provides abiding terror, not jumpscares; he crafts cerebral story instead of running and screaming; he delivers NOPE for us to YEP.