The essence of the cinema is the symbol—the filming of action that stands for something else, that gets its identity from what’s offscreen. There’s plenty of action in Jordan Peele’s new film, “Nope,” and it’s imaginative and exciting if viewed purely as the genre mashup that it is—a science-fiction movie that’s also a modern-day Western. But even that premise bears an enormous, intrinsic symbolic power, one that was already apparent in a much slighter precursor, Jon Favreau’s 2011 film, “Cowboys & Aliens.” Like “Nope,” Favreau’s film involves the arrival of creatures from outer space in the American West; there, it was already apparent that what the genres share is the unwelcome arrival of outsiders from afar (aliens are to Earth as white people are to this continent). Peele takes the concept many ingenious steps further.
“Nope” is a phantasmagorical story of Black people in the American West, the unwelcome among the unwelcome, and it’s set in the present-day West, namely, Hollywood and the Hollywood-proximate, the very heart of Wild West mythology. “Nope” is one of the great movies about moviemaking, about the moral and spiritual implications of cinematic representation itself—especially the representation of people at the center of American society who are treated as its outsiders. It is an exploitation film—which is to say, a film about exploitation and the cinematic history of exploitation as the medium’s very essence.
Peele’s film is set mainly on a horse farm in California, Haywood Hollywood Horses, that provides the animals as needed for movies and TV shows and commercials. Its owner, Otis Haywood, Sr. (Keith David), dies mysteriously after being hit by a bullet-like piece of space debris that showers the property. (The projectile turns out to be a so-called Indian Head nickel, an early-twentieth-century coin depicting a Native American man.) The farm is taken over by his two children, Otis, Jr., called O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emerald (Keke Palmer). Neither of the heirs, though, is entirely cut out to fill Otis’s shoes. O.J., who loves the horses and works devotedly with them, is something of an introvert; he isn’t the communicator—the on-set presence—that his father was. Emerald, who is very much a communicator, is an aspiring filmmaker and actor for whom the horses are just a job, and not a very pleasant one. To address the farm’s financial troubles, they sell horses to a nearby Western theme park. But, when the source of the space debris—a monstrous U.F.O. that sucks humans and horses into its maw and eats them—makes its appearance, O.J. and Emerald are forced to fight it. They’re also inspired, for the purpose of saving the farm financially, to film it, in the hope of selling the first authentic footage of a U.F.O.
I’m being especially chary of spoilers in discussing “Nope”; I greatly enjoyed the discovery of the plot’s daring and inventive twists and turns, along with the discerning and speculative ideas that they bring to light. By remarkable design, the movie is as full of action as it is light on character psychology. There’s no special reason why O.J. is taciturn or Emerald is ebullient, or why they’re able to marshal the inner resources for mortal combat with invaders from outer space. “Nope” offers the characters little backstory—at least, not of the usual sort. Rather, Peele pushes even further with a theme that he launched in “Get Out” and “Us”: the recognition of history—especially its hidden or suppressed aspects—as backstory. With “Nope,” Peele looks specifically to the history of the cinema and its intersection with the experience of Black Americans to create a backstory that virtually imbues every frame of the movie.
For the Haywoods, the crucial backstory goes to the birth of the cinema: the real-life “moving images,” created by Eadweard Muybridge in the eighteen-seventies and eighties, that are often considered the primordial movies. Muybridge was commissioned to study the movement of a galloping horse; the name of the Black jockey he photographed riding one of those horses went unrecorded. In “Nope,” Peele creates a fictitious identity for the rider—Alistair Haywood, the family’s forebear. Emerald tells the crew on a TV commercial, who are relying on one of their horses, that, when it comes to movies, the Haywoods have “skin in the game.” Acknowledging and extending cinema’s legacy while also redressing its omissions and misrepresentations of history is the premise of “Nope”: the responsibility, the guilt, the danger, the ethical compromise of the cinematic gaze.
The film-centric symbolism of “Nope” gives rise to the film’s distinctive, surprising sense of texture. “Get Out” and “Us” are films of a thick cinematic impasto, crowded with characters and tangled with action. “Nope,” made on a much higher budget, is a sort-of blockbuster—but an inside-out blockbuster. If the first two films are oil paintings, “Nope” is a watercolor of the kind that leaves patches of the underlying paper untinted. It’s set in wide-open Western spaces, and what fills their emptiness is power: political, historical, physical, psychological.
The movie is also filled with images—imagined ones, and also real ones, a visual overlay of myth and lore that fills the Western landscape with the history of the cinema. What embodies the invisible lines of power is the gaze, of the eye and of the camera alike. Peele has been, from the start of his career, one of the great directors of point-of-view shots, of the drama and the psychology of vision, and he pursues the same idea to radical extremes in “Nope.” Point-of-view shots are at the center of the drama; again, avoiding spoilers, the spark of the drama turns out to be, in effect, eye contact—the connection of the seer and the seen (including when they’re one and the same, in reflections). Alongside the intrusive intimacy of the naked eye, Peele makes explicit the inherently predatory aspect of the photographic image—the taking of life, so to speak—and the responsibility that image-making imposes on the maker.
There’s another bit of backstory that puts the filmmaker’s responsibility front and center. The movie begins with a scene in a TV studio, where an ostensibly trained chimpanzee performing with human actors on a sitcom runs amok. (This subplot reminds me of the horrific accident on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” in 1982.) A survivor of the chimp’s attack, which took place in 1996, is an Asian American child actor (Jacob Kim) who now, as an adult (played by Steven Yeun), is the owner of Jupiter’s Trail, the Western theme park to which O.J. has been selling horses. The jovial owner, called Jupe, has also had some contact with the U.F.O. and is also trying to profit from it, indifferent to the risks involved. Jupe’s space-horse show (something of a mysterious, invitation-only event) makes uncannily clear the predatory connection between viewers and, um, consumers.
Peele is seriously playful with the technology of movies in ways that recall Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” The action of “Nope” pivots on the power and the nature of movie technology—the contrast of digital and optical images—and the creative rediscovery of bygone methods, as reflected in its very cast of characters, which includes a young electronic-surveillance nerd and U.F.O. buff (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott). The TV commercial for which the Haywoods rent a horse is being shot in a studio, in front of a green screen (another empty visual space shot through with power), where a melancholy horse is standing still, stripped of its majestic energy, reduced to a mere digital emblem of itself, ridden by no one but manipulated by a desk jockey with no onscreen identity at all. Peele presents the C.G.I. on which “Nope” itself depends as a dubious temptation and a form of dangerous power.
Yet the crucial bit of backstory remains unexpressed: the question of why, of all the horse farms in California, the space creatures chose to target the one that’s Black-owned. The answer to the question is one that both demands expression and faces a silencing on a daily, institutional basis. The movie opens with a Biblical quote: a scourging prophecy, from the book of Nahum. In transferring the politics of “Nope” to the intergalactic level—a sardonic vision of the universality of racism—Peele also transfers them to an overarching, spiritual, metaphysical one. He offers a scathing, exuberant vision of redemption. ♦