Throughout his burgeoning body of work, Jordan Peele has steadily traced a line from horror to science fiction, using his reboot of The Twilight Zone to explore ever more eccentric and even dissonant ways of wedding these two genres. Nope is the next step in that process, a provocatively fractured work that is so shrouded in high-concept cues that it sometimes feels more like a scheme than a film, a diagram of Peele’s converging interests, and a pressure point between the first and next stage in his career. There are so many different elements at play here – it almost feels like an anthology film, or a television series condensed into a film – that it’s hard to give a cohesive plot overview, or identify one particular trajectory as the most important. Perhaps it makes most sense to start with the credit sequence, which slowly pans us through an abstract tunnel that, we learn later on, is the oesophagus of an alien. In this opening shot, we’re moving from the inside out, gazing out at empty space, presumably because the alien is moving through the galaxy en route to, or on its way from, Earth. As the camera gravitates towards that void, a deeper blackness appears within it, and this gradually resolves into the first images ever committed to film – “The Horse in Motion” a black jockey on a galloping horse, captured by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878, using chronophotography.
This is the driving image of Nope, which revolves around a pair of black siblings, OJ and Emerald Haywood, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, who are descendants of that original uncredited black horse rider. OJ and Em now live on a ranch, and make their living “wrangling” horses for Hollywood productions. While OJ is fairly reticent, and prefers to spend most of his time with the horses, Em starts each shoot by asking the film crew if they know the name of the black horse rider, or the history behind this original cinematic image. We first hear a collective “nope” in the film when she poses this question to her latest crew, prompting her to launch into the story of how she and her brother descended from this originary cinematic moment. Nope thus sets out to interrogate the most primal encounter between black people and film, reminding us that the links between cinematic innovation and black subjugation stretch much farther back than Gone with the Wind’sTechnicolor or The Birth of a Nation’s cross-editing to encompass the origin, invention and inception of film itself.
More specifically, Nope traces a link between the invention of film and the anatomisation, compartmentalisation and alienation of the black body. While Muybridge pioneered film, he did so as a scientist, rather than an artist – his intention was to break the gaits of a horse down to its component parts, and (among other things) prove that there were moments when it had all four feet off the ground, a fact that had been suspected but never verified using regular perception. The black rider was merely a means to this end, but Nope suggests that the same process soon extended to African Americans, who were fragmented into manageable parts by the technology of cinema as it expanded and evolved. As it percolated into the panoramic vistas of the classical western, Hollywood’s mythology par excellence of American supremacy, the horse thus became a figure for the emasculated black body, or the absent black body, much as OJ seems to lead his horse around like a vestige of his own black pride, always shuffling sheepishly in time to its steps, and averting his own gaze in the process.
Nope thus traces a link between the invention of film, the horse as a cinematic motif, the expansion of the western, and the decimation of black humanity, to the point where it now requires a leap of science fictional proportions to reimagine film as a medium that started with a black man on a horse. We get glimpses of this sci-fi lens in the opening scenes of the film, when an unseen presence causes OJ and Em’s father Otis, played by Keith David, to fall from his horse, and then succumb to wounds that seem to come from nowhere. We also see it in the subsidiary story of Ricky, a former child actor, played by Stephen Yeun, who landed himself the role of token Asian child on a sitcom named Jupiter’s Orbit. This series featured a chimpanzee who went crazy one day, mauling and killing all the adult cast members but extending a transspecies fist pump to Ricky, who in turn monetised his trauma into a garishly decorated theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, featuring a space age lasso show, and a cabinet of curiosities that situate his racial otherness at the exact nexus between western and sci-fi.
Ricky’s theme park is just one of a series of negations or “nopes” that structure – or rather, unstructure – Peele’s film, which attempts nothing less than to excavate the cinema that emerged from that original Muybridge image, and imagine an alternative history in which it became a rallying cry for black pride. As a result, Nope is easily the most freeform of Peele’s films, a series of absences and ellipses that are so anxious to reject or revise what you think they might be that it’s virtually impossible to cohere the different plot threads for the first half. The same goes for the visual and sonic planes of the film, as the blinding light of the desert makes it very difficult to make out the faces of the predominantly black cast, and the dialogue also often seems to be unfolding at a remote distance, at least to this white viewer. Over time, these absences, ellipses and “nopes” crystallise into the emptiness of the space that hangs above and around OJ and Em’s ranch, which is suspended in a giant bowl of sky in the midst of a vast valley. As in so many of Peele’s other tableaux, we hear the scale of this space before we see it, whether in the wild roars that a tech worker makes when he arrives at their home, and realises just how far out they live, or in the long yelling conversation that OJ embarks upon with Ricky across an empty field. When the UFO first appears, it’s drawn by Em blasting funk so loud that it shakes the entire valley, without a neighbour in sight to complain, while OJ is initially distracted from it by music percolating up from the town below.
Sounds travel so far in this valley, and have so much range to echo, distort and decay, that they transform it into a negation in and of itself – a negative space that reduces every utterance to its hauntological double, suffusing the predominantly African American score with visions of black futures that might have been. Peele visualises this negative space by collapsing the valley into the sky above it, which becomes a peak widescreen experience, more expansive even than the western, and the canvas upon which Nope sets out to imagine a different trajectory from that original Muybridge film. At stake here is nothing less than the entire history of cinema as we know it, so it makes sense that Peele opts for a cosmic symbol, a UFO that gradually coalesces from the textures and nuances of this enormous panoramic vista, which features some of the most beautifully etched cloudscapes committed to film, full of mercurial sources of light that perpetually gesture towards an alien presence beyond them.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a UFO film where the sheer act of scanning the sky is so evocative, since the more that Em and OJ try to nail down this extraterrestrial craft – they buy a suite of surveillance cameras, place them all over the ranch, and train them all at the sky – the more emergent it becomes. To capture it on film is as impossible as trying to rewrite the history of film itself, and yet Em and OJ try set out to achieve both by hiring a documentary filmmaker who is renowned for “impossible shots,” one Antlers Holst, played by Michael Wincott. To capture the UFO on film, Holst has to settle into an almost preternatural awareness, a camera-like sensitivity, to the precise modulations of light and texture that foreshadow its presence and existence. In Cinephilia, or The Wind in the Trees, Christian Keathley suggests that our most profound filmic moments come down to just these transitory phenomena, both when they are captured on film, and when we imagine how they might be captured on film. Holst has to display the same cinephilic prescience here, continually scanning the sky, while the audience strains their eyes, for the UFO to disclose its ephemeral synergy with his cameras. It’s like trying to nail down a cloud, much as the UFO first emerges as a cloud that doesn’t move, and then conceals itself subliminally within the cloudscape that textures the valley sky.
However, it’s not enough for Holst, whose name evokes the celestial panorama he scrutinises, to merely watch the skies for aliens. He has to capture them on film, which means capturing them on analog film, since the UFO has an anti-electrical field that destroys all digital technology. The only way to record it is to imprint it on celloloid, using a hand-cranked camera, and finally a mechanically operated camera located deep in a well at the Jupiter’s Ranch theme park. As we sink deeper into analog technology, and Peele embeds cinema back into the fairground attactions that produced it, the impossibility of recording the UFO segues into the impossibility of rewriting the long history of Muybridge’s black cowboy. To imagine a different kind of cinema is to imagine a UFO, an Unidentified Filmic Object, that’s stranger than anything film currently has to offer, both in its futurism and it its alternative relation to the technological past. Later on, when the UFO starts to evolve, it does so by way of a fractallated ejecting square that looks remarkably like the extended shutter of the oldest cameras, but is decked out in a lurid green that squarely situates it in the sci-fi future as well.
As the pressure point between the real and imagined histories of cinema, a technology that has ineradicably shaped black bodies, the UFO exists at the nexus between technology and bodies, between mechanical and organic motifs. In fact, the great twist of Nope is that this piece of alien machinery actually turns out to be an enormous organism, a giant mobile eyeball, an enlivened gaze that moves across the landscape. If it’s impossible to grasp in its entirety, that’s because it commands vision – it’s both a visual spectacle in itself and the horizon for all sight, in the same way that it’s both a living thing and a condition for all life. At its most animated and aggressive, it manifests as a low-lying cloud, dripping blood and water across the landscape in a gothic fertiliser. Like the Predator in Prey, it becomes an incitement to anti-colonial discourse, since to match it, or absorb it, OJ and Em also have to turn themselves into two pairs of disembodied eyes surrounded by darkness, a purely black optic. As the film proceeds, Peele gradually blurs their faces, until OJ, in particular, is just this pair of eyes, whites full of wonder and terror until he’s finally able to gaze directly up at the UFO.
In the process, the UFO becomes a new cinematic resource, a new kind of gaze, as momentous in its implications as Muybridge’s clips, and just as strange and emergent in its visual appearance. To capture that alterity, Peele departs from the typical iconography of alien abduction films to restore their strangeness, now all but lost to genre conventions, and reimagines the moment of first contact in terms of a sublime yet transient media regime that can only be glimpsed through impressionistic constellations of rain, mist and darkness. To make up for the blackness disenfranchised by that first cowboy clip, OJ and Em have to harvest this new cinematic space for black folk at its point of inception, which first and foremost means reclaiming horses as their cinematic surrogate. For just as Muybridge used the anatomy of the horse to demonstrate the powers of his camera, OJ and Em’s horses intuit the UFO first, and are the preliminary conduit for its powers – most “chapters” in the film are named after a horse – presumably because their nictitating eyelids make them more immune and more vulnerable to the sky, perpetually sweeping their gaze on the brink of the heavens.
The result is an inverted western, or an anti-western, in which OJ sets out to corral this new cinematic language by way of the heroic widescreen vistas that defined the old cinematic language. No doubt, that old western language is undercut and rendered bathetic, turned against itself by virtue of this very attempt, as evinced in the ridiculous inflated figures that OJ and Em set across the landscape to map where the anti-electrical field starts and ends. But that only subsumes this involuted western into a more primal encounter between OJ and the filmic fabric that has shaped his entire life, both as a horse wrangler and more generally as a black man. Trying to discern the UFO is like trying to discern (the) film looking back at him, which in turn allows him to discover the secret of escaping it: “I don’t think it eats you if you don’t look it in the eye.” In fact, as OJ quickly learns, the truth is even more subtle: you’re only vulnerable to the UFO if it catches you looking at it, if you mutually sustain a shared gaze.
This creates a remarkable showdown in which OJ and Em have to corral the UFO without ever looking directly at it. Yet after a while, it becomes clear that looking at it, permitting yourself to be consumed by it, and becoming a part of it, has to be the point, since only then can OJ and Em fuse themselves with “this alien creature” that Ricky terms “the viewers” in his Star Lasso Experience. The film thus ends by splintering the siblings in two, as OJ finally stares directly into the UFO, and gestures “I see you,” Nope’s equivalent of “Now Stay Woke,” and Em lures it to the fairground, the birth of cinema, where she uses the giant well-camera to secure the “impossible” image that will allow them to reinvent Muybridge’s inception point anew. We end in the aftermath of this image, mist clearing from an amorphous space labelled “Out Yonder,” as the film replaces all the frontiers that proliferated from that original black horse to a new kind of (post-)cinematic frontier, one where he might play the main character.