The essence of cinema is the symbol – the filming of an action which represents something else, which derives its identity from what is off-screen. There’s a lot of action in Jordan Peele’s new movie, ‘Nope’, and it’s imaginative and exciting if viewed solely as the genre mashup that it is – a sci-fi movie that’s also a modern western. But even that premise carries enormous intrinsic symbolic power, which was already apparent in a much lighter precursor, Jon Favreau’s 2011 film, “Cowboys & Aliens.” Like “No”, Favreau’s film involves the arrival of creatures from outer space in the American West; there, it was already evident that what genders share is the unwanted arrival of aliens from afar (aliens are to Earth what white people are to this continent). Peele takes the concept many ingenious steps further.
“Nope” is a spooky story of black people in the American West, the undesirables among the undesirables, and it is set in the present West, namely Hollywood and nearby Hollywood, the very heart of Old West mythology. . “No” is one of the great films about cinema, 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, that is to say a film on exploitation and the cinematographic history of exploitation as the very essence of the medium.
Peele’s film is primarily set at a California horse farm, Haywood Hollywood Horses, which provides the animals needed for movies, TV shows, and commercials. Its owner, Otis Haywood, Sr. (Keith David), mysteriously dies after being hit by bullet-shaped space junk that floods the property. (The projectile turns out to be a so-called Indian Head nickel, an early 20th century coin depicting a Native American.) The farm is taken over by his two children, Otis, Jr., called OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emeraude (Keke Palmer). However, neither heir is entirely cut out to fill Otis’ shoes. OJ, who loves horses and works with them with dedication, is a bit introverted; he is not the communicator – the on-set presence – that his father was. Emerald, who is very communicative, is a budding filmmaker and actor for whom horses are just a job, and not a very pleasant one. To solve the farm’s financial problems, they sell horses to a nearby Western theme park. But, when the source of the space junk—a monstrous UFO that sucks humans and horses into its mouth and eats them—appears, OJ and Emerald are forced to fight it. They are also inspired, in an effort to save the farm financially, to film it, hoping to sell the first authentic footage of a UFO.
I’m especially careful with spoilers when discussing “No”; I thoroughly enjoyed discovering the bold and inventive twists in the plot, as well as the fine and speculative ideas they bring to light. Due to its remarkable design, the film is as action-packed as it is light on the psychology of the characters. There’s no particular reason why OJ is taciturn or Emerald is exuberant, or why they’re able to marshal the resources within for deadly combat with space invaders. “No” offers the characters little backstory, at least not of the usual kind. Rather, Peele pushes it even further with a theme he pioneered in “Get Out” and “Us”: acknowledgment of history – especially its hidden or suppressed aspects – as backstory. With “No,” Peele specifically leans into the history of cinema and its intersection with the Black American experience to create a backstory that permeates virtually every frame of the film.
For the Haywoods, the crucial story goes back to the birth of cinema: the real-life ‘moving pictures’ created by Eadweard Muybridge in the 1870s and 1980s, which are often considered the primordial films. Muybridge was commissioned to study the motion of a galloping horse; the name of the black jockey he photographed riding one of these horses has not been recorded. In “No”, Peele creates a fictional identity for the rider – Alistair Haywood, the family ancestor. Emerald tells the crew of a TV commercial, which relies on one of their horses, that when it comes to movies, the Haywoods have “skin in the game.” Recognizing and extending the heritage of cinema while repairing its omissions and its false representations of history is the premise of “No”: the responsibility, the guilt, the danger, the ethical compromise of the cinematographic gaze.
The film-centric symbolism of “Nope” gives rise to the film’s distinctive and surprising sense of texture. “Get Out” and “Us” are thickly cinematic films, filled with characters and intertwined with action. “No”, made with a much higher budget, is a kind of blockbuster, but a blockbuster in reverse. If the first two films are oil paintings, “Nope” is a watercolor of the kind that leaves stains of the underlying paper untinted. It takes place in large Western spaces, and what fills their void is power: political, historical, physical, psychological.
The film is also filled with imagery – imagined, but also real, a visual overlay of myth and lore that fills the Western landscape of film history. What embodies the invisible lines of force is the gaze, of the eye as well as of the camera. Peele was, from the beginning of his career, one of the great directors of point of view, drama and the psychology of vision, and he takes the same idea to the extreme in “No”. Point-of-view shots are central to the drama; again, avoiding spoilers, the spark of drama turns out to be, in fact, eye contact – the connection of the seer and the seen (including when they are one, in the reflections). Along with 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 creator.
There is another backstory that puts the responsibility of the filmmaker at the forefront. The film begins with a scene in a television studio, where an ostensibly trained chimpanzee performing with human actors on a sitcom goes wild. (This subplot reminds me of the horrific accident on the set of “Twilight Zone: The Movie” in 1982.) A survivor of the chimpanzee attack, which took place in 1996, is an American-born child actor Asian (Jacob Kim) who now, as an adult (played by Steven Yeun), is the owner of Jupiter’s Trail, the Western theme park that OJ sells horses to. The cheerful owner, called Jupe, has also had contact with the UFO and is also trying to profit from it, indifferent to the risks involved. Jupe’s space horse show (something of a mysterious, invite-only event) makes the predatory connection between viewers and, uh, consumers eerily clear.
Peele seriously plays with film technology in a way reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” The action of “Nope” revolves around the power and nature of cinematic technology – the contrast of digital and optical images – and the creative rediscovery of ancient methods, as evidenced by its very cast of characters, which includes a young electronic surveillance nerd and UFO enthusiast (Brandon Perea) and grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott). The TV commercial for the Haywoods to rent a horse is shot in the studio, in front of a green screen (another empty visual space shot through with power), where a melancholy horse stands motionless, stripped of its majestic energy, reduced to a mere digital emblem of himself, ridden by no one but handled by a desk jockey with no on-screen identity. Peele casts the CGI on which “Nope” itself depends as a dubious temptation and a dangerous form of power.
Yet the crucial backstory remains unspoken: the question of why, of all the horse farms in California, the space creatures chose to target the black-owned one. The answer to the question is one that both demands expression and faces daily and institutional silence. The film opens with a biblical quote: a flagellant prophecy, taken from the book of Nahum. By transferring the politics of “No” to the intergalactic level – a sardonic view of the universality of racism – Peele also transfers them to a global, spiritual and metaphysical level. It offers a scathing and exuberant vision of redemption. ♦