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Cowboys and Aliens
Horror with a message. That was Jordan Peele’s m.o. in his first two films, “Get Out!” (2017) and “Us” (2019). “Nope” is just as didactic, with only a touch of horror. Yes, there’s blood running down the stairs, a horsehead through a truck windshield, a brutal mauling (which we hear but don’t see), and lots of fear. The horror is muted here, replaced by a story and look that combines facets of the Western (a stoic hero, horses, an isolated farmstead with a corral, a Western town—albeit a simulacrum, a tourist attraction—and an arena that hosts a version of the Wild West Show) with elements of the sci-fi/alien invaders genre.
Above, Em (Keke Palmer) and OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) Haywood try to convince Hollywood types to hire them and their trained horses.
OJ resembles in some ways the classic Western hero, à la Alan Ladd’s Shane.
OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya, Peele’s muse, protagonist of “Get Out!”) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) inherit a horse-training ranch when their father is killed by a metal object falling from the sky. OJ resembles in some ways the classic Western hero, à la Alan Ladd’s Shane ("Shane" 1953). Thoughtful, taciturn and imperturbable, he also represents a traditional reverence for what the ranch means. “Em” is the extrovert to OJ’s introvert: a social-media-style, self-promoting, petty entrepreneur, whose goal—rather than to save the ranch—is to make money, and not by training horses.
Em (Keke Palmer) and OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) shop at Fry's Electronics (a now-defunct California big box store) in their attempt to find devices that will capture the image of the aliens in the sky.
Three other male characters—a brash young tech guy, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), who works at Fry’s Electronics (a California big-box store that ceased operations in 2021), a crusty, expert cameraman (Michael Wincott), and Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), promoter/entertainer—round out the ensemble cast. They do not, however, form a community, not even one like the dysfunctional trio of John Huston’s 1948 “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Everyone is either isolated or operating in a simulated environment. Only OJ, a courageous loner on his isolated ranch, has some wider sense of obligation: to his sister, the ranch, and their animals—certainly not to society at large, threatened by aliens.
There is no romance in “Nope.” Nor does director Peele have any serious interest in the West as a place or phenomenon.
There is no romance in “Nope.” Nor does director Peele have any serious interest in the West as a place or phenomenon. A final scene, in which a spectral OJ emerges from a cloud of dust on horseback, just outside the “town” and framed by an arch, can only be understood as an ironic, overly-determined reference, bringing to mind John Wayne’s more meaningful door-framed exit in “The Searchers” (1959).
One of the low-tech ways OJ and Em combat the aliens is with inflatable, waving tube men.
Peele’s engagement with science fiction and alien invaders seems equally perfunctory. There are no scientists (as in “Arrival” , or “The Day the Earth Stood Still” ) to figure out who the extra-terrestrials are, or what they want, or how to engage, befriend, or defeat them—questions that would appear to be of little concern to Peele. OJ (“I don't think they'd take you if you don't look at it”) and Em find absurdly low-tech ways to deal with the new enemy (flags and a giant blow-up doll may do the trick), but the others just want to make money off what’s happening, whether by filming the invaders (if, indeed, they are that) or, in the case of the promoter Park (Yeun was Oscar-nominated in “Minari” ) using them to stage an open-air performance.
Another piece of simulacra is the Gold Rush theme park, above, complete with its hovering inflatable mascot that could play a role in handling the aliens.
One learns almost nothing about the invading entity, except that it’s shaped like a flying saucer, can turn off electricity and hide itself behind a never-changing cloud, and may be an animal, with a large mouth/hole with which it can blow fiercely or suck up and ingest people, and sometimes horses, while spitting out metal objects. Despite the “animal’s” ability to create frightening hurricane-force winds, the ranch house and barn remain something of a safe haven. None of this makes much sense. Peele doesn’t care.
It’s all about the message. “Get Out!” was a polemic on intense white genetic racism, “Us” a treatise on race and class. Although co-stars Kaluuya and Palmer are Black, Perea Latino, and Yeun Asian-American, “Nope” is not about race.
Peele’s current obsession is revealed in an early flashback to a television series when Gordy, the chimpanzee star of the show “Gordy’s Home,” decides on the set that he’s had enough of performing for humans.
Peele’s current obsession is revealed in an early flashback to a television series when Gordy, the chimpanzee star of the show “Gordy’s Home,” decides on the set that he’s had enough of performing for humans. Our protagonists are, of course, trainers of horses—teachers of performance—and their pupils are not above resenting their treatment. Park is a survivor of the chimpanzee’s revenge who nonetheless looks back fondly at the series. He not only uses horses in the show he puts on in his California Gold Rush theme park (another comment on get-rich-quick schemes), but also—and with lethal consequences for his all-white, misfit audience—incorporates the alien presence in what he describes as the “absolute spectacle.” Not coincidentally, the film opens with a Biblical quotation, Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, make you a spectacle.”
Peele’s use of Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 film “The Galloping Horse” has a racial valence, in that the jockey, we’re told, was Black, and the Haywoods are his descendants. “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game,” says Em. In revealing, through the slow motion of the day, precisely how the horse moved through space, Muybridge’s movie also objectified the animal, creating still another spectacle. The cameraman enlisted to capture the aliens on film, and his assistant in that process, the tech guy, are also involved in objectification. Em, too, wants the photographic proof that will bring her fame and fortune. Given this emphasis on documentation and the manipulation—especially of animals—it is not at all clear why the invader indiscriminately eats horses as well as people.
“Nope” is a messy film, an entertaining mixture of genres that fail to cohere, and whose sci-fi component is amateurishly assembled and often non-sensical. It is also unfailingly interesting, as Peele steps away from race and class to interrogate a new and unusual set of ideas. On that level, some may find it his best work.
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott
Country: United States
Runtime: 130 minutes`
Other Awards: One win to date, Most Anticipated Film, Hollywood Critics Association Midseason Awards 2022