Everybody Wants To Be Famous
Mar 29, 2023
Editor’s Note: The following contains Nope spoilers.
The latest highly anticipated film from acclaimed writer-director Jordan Peele, Nope, has finally been unleashed on the world and has proven to be one of his most intriguing yet. Much like Get Out and Us before it, it is a film that plays with genre in a multitude of ways that pack a lot of meaning. What sets it apart is how much it is built around and interested in the history of moviemaking itself. It shows that Peele is both hyper-aware of the history of the industry and skeptical about its impact. This creates a self-reflective quality that, while it is an enjoyable summer blockbuster, also brings a lot of depth to its narrative. On the surface, it is about a group of people caught up in a science fiction story with tinges of horror. When you look closer, you see it is a movie that is itself about the process of creating for an audience and what the impact of seeking spectacle has on the people involved. It is a rich and melancholic text that I am now about to completely spoil from beginning to end. Thus, either bookmark this to read later, or be prepared for everything to be revealed from here forward.
Nahum 3:6 and ‘Gordy’s Home’
To understand what the film means by the time it all ends, we must first start at the beginning. It begins with a Bible verse, Nahum 3:6, whose King James version is “I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a gazingstock.” It is a thesis statement of sorts for the film that establishes a pessimism about the nature of the spectacle that it then spends the rest of the runtime uncovering. We then hear dialogue and a laugh track from a sitcom playing underneath. Specifically, it is a 90s sitcom where a primary character is named Gordy, played by a chimpanzee. We then hear that things have gone very wrong and we see the animal has seemingly attacked everyone on set. There is a lone shoe left standing up as the chimp wanders around before staring directly at the camera. We then jump forward in time to when the majority of the film is actually set, though it is important that you don’t forget this crucial moment as it is key to understanding basically everything that follows it.
Unlucky and Lucky
We then get introduced to Otis Jr. AKA OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) who is working on a farm with his father Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) closer to the present day. It is a family business with a legacy that goes back decades providing horses for classic Hollywood films of old. As father and son go about their daily tasks, we hear a strange sound as objects begin falling from the sky. We discover these objects are everything from keys to coins, seemingly harmless things that can become deadly projectiles when hurtling back to Earth. OJ is left unscathed, but Otis is not. He falls from his horse and is rushed to the hospital, though it is too late as we cut to Otis Sr. dead on a table. He was killed by a nickel that went into his head, leaving his bereaved son to run the struggling business all on his own. We then flash forward six months and OJ is on set with a horse, Lucky, in front of a green screen. He is nervous, waiting for his more confident sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) to arrive. When she does, she gives the speech he was trying to give about their family history. She explains that the first time there was a motion picture, it was of an unnamed jockey on a horse. This man was the siblings’ great-great-great-grandfather. Despite this speech, they are fired from the project after Lucky gets spooked by his own reflection and kicks backward toward another set worker. Their real-life horse is then replaced by a CGI creation and the siblings go home, cast aside without a second thought by the very industry that their family helped to build. This is only the beginning of what Peele has on his mind.
Image via Universal
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It is there that they gradually begin to determine that whatever killed their father was not falling debris from a plane, but something not of this world. They determine it is a UFO that is hiding in the clouds and set out to capture a perfect image of it, the “Oprah shot” as they call it. However, they soon realize that this is easier said than done as this mysterious craft will knock out the power of anything it hovers above. Even when they get help from the curious Fry’s Electronics employee they go to for technology, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), they still can’t quite seem to get it. There is something they are missing about the subject of their fascination. They discover that this is not a spacecraft at all, but a predator of some kind that has been using their land to hunt for prey for months. This all comes to a head when their neighbor tries to use the creature for his show. This is Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun) who was actually the child star from the tragic sitcom we saw from the beginning. He was one of the few to survive and has now spent his life chasing the fame that came from that trauma. Believing he could turn the creature into an attraction, he gets himself, his family, and the audience all killed when it consumes them. After all he endured, Ricky’s own desire for the spectacle was his undoing. He tried to claw his way back and lost everything as a result.
Getting the Oprah Shot
Fleeing from the farm to regroup after nearly dying themselves when the creature hovered above their home and dumped all the blood down on them from its latest meal, the trio of OJ, Emerald and Angel return with a more comprehensive plan they’ve hatched. They decide that they will have to lure it out using OJ as bait and inflatable dancing tube men that deflate when it flies overhead to track where it is. Plus, with some smart observations by OJ, they now know that they can’t look directly at it as that is what draws it to you. They will shoot using film and assistance from the grizzled cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) they had tried to recruit earlier in the film. It almost all works, though Antlers is not satisfied and wants to get the shot absolutely perfect. As a result, he is sucked up by the creature and perishes in his pursuit of perfection. Angel is almost swallowed up himself but manages to survive by wrapping wire around his body to hold him down. OJ draws the creature away so Emerald can escape back to Ricky’s nearby amusement park where he and all the guests died prior. Using some quick thinking, she releases a giant balloon to draw the creature close enough to get a photo using a camera in a wishing well-meant for tourists. She lines it up just right and gets it in all its glory. The creature then explodes after consuming the balloon and we see OJ has survived. The last shot is the print of the image the siblings worked so hard to get that is now memorialized for us, both the audience of the film and of its world, to see for ourselves.
Risking Everything For One Perfect Image
The ending is a triumphant one that is also mixed with a greater tragedy. The film is abundantly funny, though interwoven throughout it is the sense that all those seeking to capture a moment of spectacle for their audience risk getting lost themselves. Ricky was part of a show that ended in horrific violence though still keeps memorabilia from it and gives his life to try to recapture one more moment of glory. Antlers just can’t help himself from risking everything to get one more perfect shot. OJ and Emerald themselves had a chance to get away and save themselves, though they were drawn back by a desire to create something no one else had seen before. That they achieve it and are victorious is a satisfying conclusion, though it all comes at a steep cost. Their father has died, and they nearly did too, all in pursuit of this one moment of recognition. It is more than just their business but a desire to create a legacy for themselves, something Peele teases out subtly.
The siblings don’t state their intentions all that much as they mostly just needle each other, though every decision they make in this conclusion shows they are not that much unlike Ricky and Antlers before them. That all of them stay in this pursuit despite what they will have to endure is where the film really leaves an impact. Each character is, in their own way, desperately trying to carve out a place for themselves. They are appealing to an audience that will toss them aside without a second thought even as they give so much of themselves for them. The title itself, Nope, expresses their first impulse to get away from the danger. Yet this desire to see it for themselves and be seen for their achievements overrides all else. It isn’t really about the science fiction elements even as that is what makes the film such a fun ride. This is merely a stand-in for the consuming desire to capture something no one else has; to leave your mark on the world no matter the immense cost. That makes the final image one that is deeply sad. Even in a hard-fought victory, they went through hell and back just to get this singular still.
It is the result of all their efforts, the blood, sweat, and tears they have given to capture it for the world to see. Was it worth it? We certainly are invested in them succeeding as we grow to care for these characters and their wild schemes. There is something of ourselves we can see in them and the desire to be part of a moment that can put them on the map. They all are just trying to get one glimpse of recognition, of acknowledgement that they are alive and there to see something no one else in history has. Many of them have been downtrodden, pushed to the margins of the industry by an audience and system that no longer cares for them anymore. So when they get a chance to get back in, all of them jump at the opportunity and throw themselves into oblivion for it. It seems reckless and even a little bit crazy, though who among us wouldn’t be tempted to risk anything for such a shot? That it is taken with a gimmicky camera for tourists desperate to be a part of cinematic history is rather pointed. However, it is the moment the proceeded this where Peele really makes explicit what is on his mind. The final moments that we see of OJ and Emerald are two-fold. The first is when the older brother gives a sign to his younger sister that he sees her, a callback to when she was pushed to the side while his father trained him. The second is when she sees him back, emerging from the debris on a horse like he is his own western icon. Both just wanted to be seen, ensuring the moment where they finally are is nothing short of devastating for us as viewers and for them.
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