The following thoughts on Jordan Peele’s new film Nope are entirely about spoilers from start to finish except the two obligatory postscripts at the end of every MCC entry, which cover additional cast and the end credits. While Get Out remains his best film so far, Nope is a rare treat for me: a film which, the more I dwelt on it, the more I loved. This is a welcome opposite of my previous summertime theatrical experience, one more deserving of fun exploration. Courtesy spoiler alert in advance, then.
We do love to watch, and under the right circumstances we love to be watched. Among the most thrilling and obvious ways to chase fame and/or fortune is to be among the most watched. Young or old, regardless of your assorted demographic memberships, anyone can be among society’s celebrated objects of attention with the right combination of talent and luck. When one ingredient is lacking, push the other to its limits. The talent doesn’t have to be great if circumstances usher the would-be idol past the velvet rope anyway. And the luck doesn’t have to be good.
Take former child star Ricky Park, best known as the star of the all-ages classic Kid Sheriff, in which he played a kid named Jupiter who…well, it’s right there in the title and its poster, with Jupiter and his two law-abidin’ pals looking into the maw of the town’s Winking Well so they can mug at the camera from above, like the old marketing images for Disney’s Holes or Amazon Prime’s The Boys. In the ’90s it was nothing short of miraculous for an Asian kid to nab a starring role in anything. Best-case scenario, the pinnacle of Asian child-actor success in Hollywood was the comic-relief sidekick role. Li’l Ricky was lucky to be considered so watchable, and he knew it.
Kid Sheriff was his most beloved high-profile project. Then there was the other one, widely known for all the wrong reasons. Gordy’s Home was a sitcom starring a pet monkey and its human owners, in that order — Mom, Dad, Teen Sister, and li’l Ricky as the Cute Youngster. In another timeline Ricky could’ve been the breakout star, and audiences might smile whenever they recall the show’s favorite punchline catchphrase: “Nope!” But Ricky was incidental — the chimps who played Gordy were the real draw. Chimps are less demanding, they never flub their lines, and you can underpay them far more than you could the Olsen twins or Steve Urkel. And they can be so cute! People love watching chimps all chimping around doing chimpy stuff. It doesn’t matter who shares the the shot with the chimp, whether it’s Clint Eastwood, Matt LeBlanc, or whatever humans costarred in MVP: Most Valuable Primate. (Who was that, you ask? Nobody knows! Or cares! Yay chimps!)
Gordy’s Home did well enough to earn a season-two renewal. That means they managed at least 22 consecutive episodes of positive chimp-handling experiences. Then came the “Gordy’s Birthday” incident. During filming in front of a live studio audience, the revealed birthday balloons rose to the studio ceiling and popped like a gunshot…and for whatever reason, Gordy went absolutely berserk for thirteen full minutes. In the film’s two most utterly terrifying sequences, the ensuing bloodletting is mostly kept off-screen, save a few judicious stains and the sight of Gordy himself loping around unchecked, stalking and attacking his prey behind various mercifully large objects. As the now-unmanned cameras kept rolling, everyone would could flee fled…except Ricky. He hid under the set’s kitchen table, couldn’t move and couldn’t stop watching. Again, for whatever reason, the chimp spared him. A single gunshot cancels Gordy, the ordeal and the show. For many trauma survivors such a day also would’ve been the end of their careers, their aspirations, and their mental health.
Even Ricky, one would imagine? Well…nope! He’ll always remember that day and have flashbacks to it, but he wouldn’t let it stop him or define him. Once he grew up to become Steven Yeun (Minari, The Walking Dead), Ricky decided Kid Sheriff should define him. It was a genuine Claim to Fame. He and his wife (Wrenn Schmidt, once a Person of Interest recurring love interest) made their home way out in a California valley and created Jupiter’s Claim (trés on-the-nose), a working ranch converted into an entire mini-theme park of 19th-century frontiersman pop culture inspired by the Wild West, the Gold Rush, and of course Kid Sheriff. My wife and I have seen a few roadside attractions in that vein — faraway cowboy-life shrines like Deadwood, Dodge City, and Frontier Village in Jamestown, ND. They had the same sort of storefronts, but none of those were owned by a genuine Hollywood star.
Thus Ricky kept one foot in the entertainment industry on his own terms, trading on whatever stardom he once possessed for the sake of convincing fans to make the long trek out to his place to keep watching and paying him. Kid Sheriff merchandise is in abundance, while genuine Kid Sheriff memorabilia is kept in his office for viewing only by special guests. No stuffed Gordy toys are in sight, but he keeps a single memento of that tragedy in its own vitrine — a blood-spattered woman’s shoe that, amid the chilling chimp charnel, was found miraculously standing straight up on its counter, having stuck a one-in-a-million landing after tumbling.
Ricky likewise stuck an improbable landing in his own way. His fame has dimmed, yet not faded entirely to black. Its low wattage is enough to attract forty fans to the ranch’s new Friday night event, scattered among his half-empty bleachers for the chance to buy cactus-flavored Icees and experience live parasocial joy with Kid Sheriff Himself. Sitting among them, much to our surprise, is his one surviving Gordy’s Home costar. Given the major damage that never healed, you couldn’t blame her if she’d spent the rest of her days secluded and grasping onto whatever last straws of her sanity remained, surely surrounded by caretakers and medical machinery. Nope! She’s come out for the occasion too, veiled yet sporting a sweatshirt with her former face on it so everyone remembers the child star she once was. She’s not onstage, but she’s perfectly okay with being remembered and seen. It surely pays some royalties.
Ricky isn’t the only nonwhite entertainment industry veteran living in the middle of nowhere. Right next door, relatively speaking in big-valley terms, are the grounds of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, proud to be the only Black-owned horse-training company in the biz. Their roots date back to the Black jockey who starred in The First Motion Picture, a series of photos that could’ve been stapled into a flipbook but were instead run through a new process that turned them into a brief yet important moving clip. It was a step forward in the advancement of camera technology and the evolution of the worldwide phenomenon that our household likes to call Watching Stuff. This cinematic milestone did not result in a glut of Black jockey silent films or flipbooks, nor did the original Mr. Haywood become famous, whether due to racism or his own skill-set issues. Instead he turned to what he knew best: dealing with horses. In Hollywood terms he became “crew” rather than “cast”. And thus a career was born, which became the family business.
Alas, as with many a venerated American industry — be it farming, manual factory labor, typewriter repair, or creating awesome original IPs — horse training isn’t the assured resource it once was, as recent generations can’t quite manage it the way their ancestors did. The Haywood family realizes this the hard way when their goodly patriarch Otis Haywood (Keith David, gone far too soon from this film) is killed in a freak accident involving a barrage of pocket change hurtled at terminal velocity from the clouds. (As in his past films, Peele relishes a metaphor writ literal, as money is weaponized to devastating effect against a minority.) Ownership and operation of the horse farm falls to his assistant/son Otis Junior (Academy Award Winner Daniel Kaluuya), who prefers to be called O.J., shrugging off anyone’s double takes about it. O.J. knows his horses, but wheeling and dealing with Hollywood types isn’t his thing. He’s not into horse training for the fame or fortune; it’s what he was raised to do, what he knows best.
Kaluuya’s performance is riveting even as a man of fewest possible words. His every lingering stare takes you to where he’s at, but the most surprising aspect of O.J. is he’s the rarest sort of horse owner I’ve ever seen in a film: one who knows horses need daily feeding and care. You can’t just take off from home and do movie plot stuff for entire days on end. More than once, other characters invite or beg him to leave the property for long spells, but he refuses without hesitation: “I’ve got mouths to feed.” (My aunts have owned horses all my life. Every time they made the 100-mile drive to come visit, the day always ended with them needing to get back home to take care of the horses.)
It’s for the sake of those same horses that O.J. needs help keeping the business going. Hollywood types ignore or don’t hear his mumbled instructions. He’s fired from a shoot when he momentarily loses control of Lucky, the horse he’s chosen for the job, who overreacts when a mirrored lighting checker is shoved in its face, and a green-screen-able wooden prop horse is promptly wheeled in to substitute. (As with Gordy, you never know what can set off some animals.) Enter his prodigal sister Emerald (Keke Palmer, fresh off Pixar’s Lightyear) to be the far more charismatic and listenable voice of the Haywoods. Resentful of how Dad always shut her out of horse-trainer training as a kid (implicitly because she was a girl), she skipped away and grew up into a gig-economy jack-of-whatever-trades, plying whatever activity might get her paid. For the sake of family, she gives O.J. some of her attention, but not all of it. She’s got other revenue streams to juggle, none of them seemingly paying any better than the rest, especially if she has to, like, work at any of them.
Then something else gets the Haywoods’ attention altogether: all those UFO sightings from the trailers. O.J. was already selling off horses to Jupiter’s Claim for extra cash, but still more horses begin disappearing from causes unknown, and not on account of ordinary rustlers. One night in particular, when a visiting Emerald turns the family stereo up loudly enough to get the whole ranch boomin’ and groovin’, the horse-thieving escalates to an alarming new level when, at frustratingly oblique angles, they catch one such horse-napping from above. Through part of that paranormal horse thievery, O.J. bears witness from inside a barn through gaps in the staggered wall slats, like a kid looking at fast-moving still pictures whirling through a zoetrope. Now they both know Something Is Out There.
If you want to save 15% or more on car insurance, you switch to GEICO. It’s what you do. And if you have aliens, you get pictures. It’s what you do. Emerald and O.J. resolve to head down to Fry’s Electronics and, with whatever funds Emerald has but whose sources she refuses to divulge, they buy the finest surveillance equipment that Fry’s Electronics has in stock and doesn’t require them to order online and overpay for for overnight delivery. It’s the 21st century and they know there’s big, big money to be found in producing concrete evidence that Earth isn’t alone in the universe, especially if said evidence is incontrovertibly shot in crystal-clear 4K, hopefully so convincingly that no one accuses them of internet image fakery.
At this point they’re not so much scared or even visibly riled up about the horses. For over a century the family has made a decent living of aiding and abetting the horsing needs of stars and filmmakers who got fame and/or fortune for being watched. Now, if their plan works, the Haywoods are about to get paid for doing the watching. At every step along the way, their quest isn’t about revenge, or justice, or seeking The Truth, or even stopping whatever’s up there in self-defense. The latter possibility never occurs to either of them, let alone any weighing of their options. The path to success is clear: (1) get the proper watching tools; (2) watch the alien correctly; (3) profit! From just watching!
Such is the stuff of which today’s internet dreams are made. Sure, a lot of YouTube and TikTokkers are raking in dough when millions of undiscerning subscribers watch their shenanigans, but there’s a separate career track for watchers themselves, whether they’re one-time heroes who happen to catch catastrophes and other people’s horrific sins in person, keen observers (some trained journalists, some not so much) who share observations worth paying for, or just home-bound geeks geeking out on geek stuff. Geeks in particular have made an entire cottage industry out of “Watch me watch stuff and then talk about my watching! Or watch me just showing you my watchable stuff without talking about it! Or just watch me name-checking the watchable stuff I own without actually watching it! Watch me because I’m an excellent watcher! Watch me more than my family ever did!”
Yes, I, the unpaid hobbyist blogger who’s venting and/or amusing himself here, am aware of the preceding, soaking irony. Intermittent flashes of post-geek self-awareness are among the reasons I’ve changed my approach to when and how I do what I do with this site in recent years. But that’s another story.
The larger irony at play in Nope involves Peele’s cleverest, most massively spoiler-y idea behind all of this: the UFO that is Our Heroes’ lone antagonist isn’t an alien ship. It is the alien. it’s surrounded by an electromagnetic field that disrupts electronics, yet in a few closeups its skin ripples. Later in the film Emerald weirdly nicknames it Jean Jacket, after one of their old horses. Jean Jacket Junior, then, is a limbless, wingless, faceless, eyeless, faintly sand-dollar-shaped space manta ray whose lair is a cloud that never moves and is easy to overlook unless you concentrate and stare really hard at the sky for minutes in a row, a tough challenge for today’s average internet-raised short-attention-span citizen. JJJ plucks its prey from the ground with a vortex that’s like a tornado-sized version of Superman’s super-breath, then spits out any excess liquids and inorganic contents — such as, say, its meal’s pocket contents. Hence we realize Keith David suffered a ridiculously ignominious death because a flying monster went Number Two on him.
JJJ cannot speak or communicate, and is incapable of overexplaining itself, thus avoiding my single biggest annoyance with the final half-hour of Peele’s otherwise spectacular Us. After a few encounters with it, O.J. spots a pattern in its behaviors: JJJ remains out of sight as much as possible, but focuses its feeding most intently on any prey that it sees watching it (with whatever passes for its sight organs). Thus the key to victory (again, defined by Our Heroes as “getting it on camera without dying”) is to somehow watch it without watching it. Or, more ideally yet more riskily, properly watching it without it watching them watching it. The viewer is reminded of Medusa, the Weeping Angels, or Lisa Simpson’s anti-Whacking Day anthem. (“Just don’t look! “Just don’t look!”)
The Haywoods pick up two accomplices among the way. Brandon Perea (Netflix’s The OA) is Angel, the Fry’s Electronics clerk who sold them their new filmmaking gear. At first he isn’t invited to their project, but he rudely and illegally taps into a remote feed, watches what they’re watching anyway, and self-recruits when he realizes their flying intrusion dovetails with his own paranoid interests. He also needs something to take his mind off his recent failed relationship, which was busted up by that whole Watcher-vs.-Watched dichotomy I’ve been harping on all entry long. To wit: his ex dumped him after she got picked to star in a new show on The CW. Angel is bitter, but the last laugh will be his if The CW keeps up their current axe-swinging rate.
Later in their beast-watching spree, they add an obligatory elder to the team: Michael Wincott, a memorably gruff presence in such ’90s films as The Crow, Alien Resurrection, and Strange Days, among countless others. As Antlers Holst, whom they met on that last job Lucky botched, he’s a veteran cinematographer with a deep interest in watching documentaries about animal fights. He’s fascinated by nature-vs.-nature bouts, entranced by whatever it is that sets off so much instinctual aggression. Careful attention reveals JJJ might be susceptible to the same sort of button-pushing when it comes in the form of loud noises — whether it’s Emerald cranking the stereo too high or Angel turning “Sunglasses at Night” up in his Fry’s Electronics van to bass-thumpin’ levels (little realizing Corey Hart is also feeding him a clue to watchman victory). And if it isn’t the “loud noises” motif that’s provoking the alien…well, as with Gordy and Lucky, you never know what can set off some animals.
Meanwhile over at Jupiter’s Claim, Ricky knows some things, but not all the things. He knows The Truth Is Out There in some form, yet doesn’t quite get them. He leans into his hunch with a separate set of little-green-men merch in the classic paradigm, but with creepy Halloween robes that endear them to his kids, whose look they borrow at one point for the sake of taunting O.J. (in one of the film’s most effectively suspenseful red herrings). Ricky is certain they’re being watched, and nicknames that hypothetical audience from beyond “Viewers”, a term that blatantly, hilariously evokes his lost TV career and his unrequited desire to remain among the Watched.
At some point he adds two-plus-two and realizes something is killing the horses. Rather than alert the authorities or go on the defense to protect the victims (please, won’t someone think of the horses?), his reaction is similar to the Haywoods’: he plots to draw out the alien in plain sight. But to him mere money isn’t enough: he also wants to share a spotlight with it. They can be Watched together and his dreams will come true and everyone will love him again, not just core Kid Sheriff fandom. His plan is more selfish and consequently more short-sighted: he schedules a very special Jupiter’s Claim event, sells tickets to the public for it, sets out poor Lucky as bait (bought from O.J. after the lost TV job), and, at the moment of his choosing, cranks up some cowboy tunes and waits for his new alien costar to show itself, eat Lucky, break the internet, and give meaning and purpose to his post-stardom, post-traumatic stress-disorderly life.
The former child star and chimp-attack survivor makes two fatal errors in judgment. One: the alien is not on an all-horse diet. Two: it loves eating watchers most. Ricky, the ex-Watched, himself fails at Watching. Forty people and his family suffer for his ignorant assumptions.
Past their tragic waste, it’s onward to the final showdown with our heroic camera-toting quartet, who receive some grace thanks to Nope‘s sometimes inconsistent enforcement of JJJ’s rules. (How far away can you safely watch it before it sees you watching it and comes after you? And how fast can it fly? The measurements change by the minute.) After much practical stunt work (my favorite kind!) and some bizarre last-minute metamorphosis on JJJ’s part, the final moments are all the stronger for the reaffirming performances and bond between brother and sister. Em and O.J. each take turns being Watched and Watcher, dividing the alien’s attention while keeping firm sight of each other as much as they can. As it happens, pervasive Fry’s Electronics product placement does not save the day — rather, it all comes down to old-fashioned, lo-fi tools that JJJ’s field can’t short out, in their own way as primitive as the process responsible for ye olde pre-TikTok Black jockey short.
The final shot is deeply telling. As our eyes are kept firmly on Emerald, after that crucial “Oprah shot” has been nailed, so too are the eyes of journalists en masse bugging wildly in her direction. They’ve arriving late to get to the bottom of the phenomenon that’s surely visible for miles around. As the last one standing amid the ruins of Jupiter’s Claim, Em’s face strains and flickers and shifts and rumbles underneath as the abject fear and the dissipating adrenaline give way to her parting thoughts.
She’s just been through the worst experience of her entire life, people died and everything hurts, and she could clearly use some time to ease down, to process, to wrap her brain fully around the outlandish mess that just happened. But the spotlight is fixed on her, and a new audience is watching. Is she too overcome by that fraught alien throwdown to deal with this sudden wave of attention? Could she even check her sanity by stepping away from the part where she’s about to get Watched, get famous, and get paid?
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Familiar faces at Lucky’s lost TV gig include Eddie Jemison (the lowest-ranking member of Ocean’s 11) as its director, and, as its star, Donna Mills from TV’s Knots Landing, which to me as a kid was way more watchable than its parent show Dallas. As a late-arriving motorcycle tabloid journalist who’s far lousier at Watching than he thinks he is, underneath the shiny helmet is Devon Graye, who played the most recent version of the Trickster on The CW’s The Flash. Hopefully he was kind enough not to dump anyone when he got the part.
Special commendation goes to Terry Notary, a master of MOCAP acting (often occupying Andy Serkis’ old throne) who’s brought primates and other creatures to life in such films as the entire Planet of the Apes trilogy, the Hobbit trilogy, the underrated Kong: Skull Island, and most recently Thor: Love and Thunder, in which he CG-cameoed as young Groot. Here, Notary brings vividly to life none other than Gordy himself, embodying his gentle sitcom ensemble bonhomie, his sudden berserker rage, and his final touching moments when his mood swings too little, too late while young Ricky helplessly watches.
How about those end credits? There’s no scene after the Nope end credits, but stubborn viewers still in their seats are instead treated to a mock poster in which a cartoon Steven Yeun mascot invites us to come visit Jupiter’s Claim at Universal Studios Hollywood, “As Seen in Nope!” I thought it was a cute fake ad at first. Nope! It’s the real deal. After production ended, Ricky Park’s entire roadside attraction was dismantled, transported to Universal Studios, and reassembled storefront by storefront. It’s possibly the first time visitors will ever be able to take the tour and glimpse an entire set from a movie that’s in theaters right now. Fans who’ve watched it onscreen can now fly thousands of miles and watch it in person.
If you prefer fake tie-ins, Jupiter’s Claim also has an official website with games, virtual postcards, sold-out merchandise, and other wholesome fun for the whole family until nightfall. (You’ll see what I mean. Just wait for it. And watch every screen.)