Nope Explained: Breaking Down Meaning of Jordan Peele Film

LJordan Peele, in anticipation of his third movie on July 22, kept it secret until the release. NopeKeep it all tightly wrapped. The trailer is little more than a spooky montage of dark forces and craning necks, and Peele was very cagey about what happens in the movie in the few interviews he’s given. Many fan theories and speculations were based on his elusiveness, such as that the movie was about government drones or time travellers or both. MMA fighter Angela Hill.

Well, two TIME reporters saw the film—and walked out of it with even more theories and questions than when we walked in. Nope It is an entrancing and highly ambitious movie that features a multitude of characters and symbols. The A-plot was resolved neatly by the time that the film ends. Theatergoers in both of the packed theatres were silent as the credits played, suggesting that there was some confusion or unease with the entire thing.

As TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek put it, “Peele, it seems, is one of those ‘It means what you think it means’ filmmakers, which delights some audiences but comes off as a copout for viewers who want to know what a filmmaker is thinking, because ostensibly those thoughts are more interesting than anything we could come up with on our own.”

So, just like the movie’s characters, we’ll try to interpret what we’ve seen before us while mixing in grandiose conspiracy theories to answer one big question: What, exactly, is Nope about? You will be surprised at the results.

Nope It is just a summer monster film

It lurks high in the heavens.

Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele’s movies beg to be closely scrutinized: they’re full of historical and cultural Easter eggs, double meanings and sociopolitical commentary. His two first films. You must get out Contact UsProfessed psychologists and historians have offered endless analyses. You must get out He even inspired a UCLA class. Peele isn’t shy about his conceptual ambition and his penchant for writing Big Themes into genre storytelling: “Humanity is the monster in my films,” he told Vanity FairIn 2017.

Peele however has made it clear that she is not satisfied with the results in recent months. Nope This is because his intentions are more visceral than surface-level. “I wrote it in a time when we were a little bit worried about the future of cinema,” Peele said. “So the first thing I knew is I wanted to create a spectacle… the great American UFO story.”

Then, after you have finished watching Nope, it’s easy to read it purely as a summer popcorn movie; a break from what critics might perceive as heavy-handed didacticism. It’s a straightforward thriller/horror film that follows a small group of men who attempt to defeat a terrifying monster. (See: Jaws, Alien, The Thing.)

Late in the movie, Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ lays out the monster’s motivations very clearly: “It’s alive, it’s territorial, and it wants to eat us.” This mute, faceless monster doesn’t seem to be a stand-in for, say, Manifest Destiny or global warming: it’s simply a vehicle for making audiences shriek, riffing on a rich cinematic history of UFOs, and capturing gorgeous shots of the expansive SoCal desert sky.

Peele does not spare no expense on this final point: he employed Hoyte Vand Hoytema to be his cinematographer. He shot the epics of Christopher Nolan, such as Dunkirk InterstellarThis one was shot using IMAX cameras. The director has made it very easy for audiences to get wrapped up in the film’s visual beauty and heart-racing motorcycle-driven set pieces; to mostly turn off their Hot Take brains and enjoy a furious battle for survival.

Nope—it’s actually a parable about the power of cinema

Jordan Peele in front of the camera during ‘Nope!’

Universal Pictures

But for characters battling a giant sky monster that eats people, they spend an awful lot of time primarily worried about… filming it?

It seems like a quarter of all movies that make it into theaters these days are so-called “love letters to Hollywood” (see: La La Land, Mank, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Licorice Pizza). Nope It repeatedly makes gestures in that direction. It is clear that the movie attempts to fit into several filmic genres: Western, Horror, Sci-Fi, and Buddy-Comedy. Although the first scene is set on a Hollywood TV set during the rampage by a murderous monkey, it takes place in its entirety. Easter egg references to film history abound, whether in the form of OJ’s Scorpion King hoodie or his Buck and the Preacher poster.

But the characters aren’t just fans of movies: they’re obsessed with the act of filming and documenting life. For OJ, Emerald (Keke Palmer), and Angel (Brandon Perea), the UFO only truly exists if they’ve captured it on film. As if they were poring through their Zapruder tape, the actors spend most of the first half of movie interfacing with it via screens. They set up a wildly ambitious obstacle course—complete with those wacky inflatable men—not to physically capture the beast but to use the footage as their golden ticket to becoming Hollywood royalty.

The movie’s climax goes even further in centering the act of filmmaking. As the monster floats off into the sky, Emerald unleashes a giant inflatable balloon cowboy—a definitive symbol of Classic Hollywood if there ever was one—as an airbound weapon, then furiously snaps her camera as she repeatedly attempts to get one perfect shot.

It’s a curious and self-serving twist on the “final shoot-out” trope, with a film roll replacing bullets. In the battle between good and evil, the film seems to be saying, it’s the actual art of filmmaking, combined with the ingenuity of filmmakers harnessing the power of Hollywood heroes, that might be humanity’s last hope.

However, there’s another way of interpreting the movie not as a love letter, but as an outright condemnation of Hollywood instead. We’ll get to that in a moment.

Nope—it’s a critique of surveillance culture

Daniel Kaluuya in “Nope” with Brandon Perea, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea

Universal Pictures

We’re still not entirely sure what the gaping organ on the underbelly of our UFO-turned-predator is (a mouth? An eye? Both?It does appear to be looking at us. OJ pieces this together, too, when he interrupts a burger run to posit that maybe the creature—like a horse—spooks at direct eye contact. The creature wants to be watched, but never to Please be watched. And Jupe (Steven Yeun) gets close to the point when he announces to the crowd at his amusement park that “We are being surveilled by an alien species I call the Viewers.” (Maybe the one thing Jupe was right about, poor guy.)

“Surveillance” is a weighty term here, given its history and significance in relation to policing the Black community. If the alien is, in fact, always watching them from inside that cloud, then the Haywoods’ ranch starts to feel a bit like a panopticon—a central observation tower within a ring of prison cells. For the prisoner, this makes it feel as though someone is always watching and stealing their privacy. She wrote it in her book Dark Matters: Surveillance of BlacknessSimone Browne compares the panopticon to slave ships. Both institutions are police-dehumanizing and manipulate people in order to create power and control.

But when OJ whips out his cell phone—a tool often used to document police brutality—to record the kids pranking him in the barn, he’s turning the tables on the threat at hand. Angel assists the Haywoods to install security cameras around their home, and the watchers become watchers. This allows them to reaffirm their power. By capturing evidence of the creature, they’re ensuring that they will be believed—and that they can control the narrative. So when Emerald snaps that last, sweat-stained photo on the Winkin’ Well, maybe that’s a win, pushing back against surveillance culture.

Nopeit’s about Black historical documentation

Keke Palmer, ‘Nope’

Universal Pictures

Or maybe that Winkin’ Well photo has a different meaning entirely.

Emerald informs the audience, on a large sound stage, that her great grandfather was the man who created the first ever motion picture from photographs. Those photos were assembled by Eadweard Muybridge, known by many as the “forefather of cinema.” The name of the jockey, however, remains unknown. “We’ve got the first movie star of all time,” Peele told GQ. “And it’s a Black man we don’t know. We haven’t looked. In a lot of ways, the movie became a response to that first film.”

When OJ and Emerald embark on a quest to record the alien, then, maybe they’re seeking to document history, leaving their own indelible mark in the textbooks.

“Ain’t nobody gonna get what we gonna get,” Emerald tells her brother inside Fry’s Electronics. “What we gonna get?” OJ asks. “The money shot,” Emerald replies. “Undeniable proof of aliens on camera. The Oprah shot.” Securing the Oprah shot would cement the Haywoods’ place in history—which should have already been established, given the family lineage. The act of “archiving while Black,” as the academic Ashley Farmer has put it, can be inherently radical, as Black scholars, historians and activists historically have been shut out of the preservation of their own history.

Haywood brothers make an untrue step in NopeThey entrust their documentation to Antlers Holst, Michael Wincott, who Emerald asserts is the only one who can capture the creature on film and happens to be white.

OJ runs for cover in a wooden structure, while a horse gallops past, echoing the Muybridge-esque praxinoscope effect. Then we’re treated to the remake itself, the pièce de résistance: a gorgeous sequence of OJ galloping through the arid, stark landscape of Southern California, recreating and reclaiming his great-great-great-grandfather’s legacy.

“It’s about taking up that space,” Peele told GQ. “It’s about existing. It’s about acknowledging the people who were erased in the journey to get here.”

Antlers has passed away, leaving Emerald to be the last woman left standing to preserve this moment in history for both her family as well as the entire world. And with every last ounce of energy—and frankly impressive upper body strength—she succeeds, snapping the Oprah shot on the trusty ol’ Winkin’ Well.

NopeNopeCapitalism is everything

Steven Yeun in ‘Nope’

Universal Pictures

You knew we’d end up here, didn’t you?

By now, it’s a cliche to yell “late stage capitalism!” about pieces of media that even reference economic structures or wage labor. Keep in mind that when you zoom out it becomes apparent that the central line of each media piece is its own. Nope’s subplots is the grave danger of wrangling the untameable into a for-profit spectacle.

First, it’s the Haywood family, whose entire legacy rests upon converting majestic stallions into show ponies to be ridden by washed-up actresses in commercials. Next, it’s the creators of Gordy’s Home, who chased viewership ratings so blindly, they ignored the Chekhov’s Ape about to detonate on his poor castmates.

Jupe saw his castmates being mauled by Gordy and was clearly traumatized. But society taught him that the tragedy was something to be mined for commerce and comedy: We’re sure Chris Kattan killed in the SNL Jupe sketches the sketch. Jupe was a child actor and had no idea of anything. It’s his Stockholm Syndrome, chained as he is to Hollywood ideals, that makes him attempt to turn the UFO into his new Gordy—because even in the worst case bloody scenario, maybe a good SNL You will get a few thousand pounds out of this.

Jupe’s attitude of embracing risk for the sake of success isn’t the exception, but the status quo. For the Haywood siblings, filming the UFO is the key to their family’s very survival. (It’s not like OJ could take bereavement leave after his father’s death.) In their near-suicidal quest to monetize the monster, they’re not all that different from the TMZ cameraman who begs for OJ to save his footage as he lays dying in the dirt.

This theme directly taps into that of two of Hollywood’s classic monster movies, King Kong Jurassic Park: that the masses’ desire for believably terrifying and titillating spectacles can only end in disaster. There are many people like Jupe, the filmmaker Antlers and others who are happy to create deafening shows as long as they sell tickets. Because they all lead to violent ends, the line between obsessive workmanship and obsessive business-creation is almost indistinguishable.

Watching Antlers die, it’s hard not to think of Halyna Hutchins, the real-life cinematographer who was shot to death by accident last year on a New Mexico film shoot of an Alec Baldwin Western. Crew members complained about unsafe work conditions and safety violations during the shoot due to tight deadlines. This incident highlighted a history of tragic accidents that have occurred on sets for film, many times caused by producers cutting corners in order to save money. With this history in mind, the characters’ attitudes of film-above-life leaves a very sour taste, and calls into question every one of their actions.

Peele himself leaves a very strong hint toward this interpretation’s veracity in the film’s first frame, which shows a grim Bible quote from the prophet Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, make you a spectacle.” Nahum says this to justify the destruction of the city of Nineveh, which he argues is overrun by sin and vice, and must be cleansed. Peele’s UFO monster, then, can be read as making a moral judgment from on high of humanity’s obsession with money and spectacle—and raining down upon them filth and blood as punishment.

Nope. We’re overthinking it

Daniel Kaluuya plays OJ in “Nope”

Universal Pictures

The question is: Are we? You can find it hereAre we allowed to have both our cake AND our savour? Are we going to need to make a fun, big summer monster movie? A treatise about the follies and capitalism in Hollywood. We can just allow Jordan Peele to enjoy. HisAfter the exhausting and daring ideas of You must get out Contact Us?

Both of Nope’s forerunners delved deep into dark places. The Sunken Place and the Tethered—though central to two timeless cinematic masterpieces—demanded a lot of both Peele and his viewers. On the other side, the Haywood Ranch infuses the film with pure thrills and edge-of-your seat terror, as well as the joy that comes along. “There’s also a way to watch this movie where you say, ‘Look, I’ve been working all day, all week,’” Peele told Uproxx. “’I want to shut off and see some wild stuff.’”

Peele, as he’s proven time and time again, is a master of cinematography and filmmaking. Perhaps we need to let go of all the analysis (as much fun as that may be), and allow Peele to do what he loves best: Make a film.

Read More From Time

Get in touchSend your letters to


Related Articles

Back to top button