‘Nobody wanna talk about that’: Jordan Peele’s Nope and the implacably weird

‘I don’t know why people can’t let me just make a movie,’ quips Jordan Peele in a GQ interview promoting his latest feature, Nope. The film, in which siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood are drawn into a confrontation with a visitor from the skies, has received a more diffident response than Peele’s earlier work. It’s undoubtedly a departure from his acclaimed debut, the social thriller Get Out (2017), and its politically savvy successor Us (2019). That departure seems to have wrongfooted critics and, while there’s no shortage of favourable notices, many reviews are underscored by confusion. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw complains the film is ‘strange, muddled, indigestible’. Caryn James, writing for the BBC’s Culture site, argues that it ‘limps along’. Closer to home, in the Sydney Morning Herald, Sandra Hall is disappointed by ‘the film’s lack of a narrative rhythm’, while Ben McCann, writing for The Conversation, is particularly scathing: ‘a terrible disappointment … brimming with ideas (lots of them silly)’. McCann poses a question that seems to trouble even those critics who liked the film: ‘What is Peele trying to say here?’

Something about spectacle is the answer almost everybody has arrived at. It’s certainly a concept running beneath the narrative, as the Haywood siblings set out to capture footage of what they assume is a flying saucer, before realising they’re squaring off against a single organism; a sky-bound predator whom they dub ‘Jean Jacket’. The human cost of such a chase hangs heavy over Nope, from its Biblical epigraph (‘I will cast abominable filth upon you, Make you vile, And make you a spectacle’—Nahum 3:6), to the deliciously sticky end of a TMZ journalist who arrives on the scene at exactly the wrong moment. But like the clouds that camouflage Jean Jacket, these flashes of signification obscure, rather than elucidate. The audience is always looking at the creature askance, from a certain point of view. For Emerald and OJ, saddled with their late father’s horse ranch, capturing footage of Jean Jacket means a way out of their financial difficulties. For their neighbour, Jupe, the spectacle of the creature will draw audiences to his theme park. For taciturn filmmaker, Antlers Holst, the creature represents an artistic opportunity that borders on the ecstatic, while slacker electronics salesman Angel sees in it a validation of his inane speculations about the world around him.

With each competing perspective comes a new avenue of interpretation. Jean Jacket has been read as the destructive lure of social media and the attention economy; as an indictment of unforgiving Hollywood; as a manifestation of our propensity to transform suffering into entertainment. Dan Hogan, writing for Overland, brings these together in one of the more perceptive responses to the film, folding Debord’s Society of the Spectacle into a map of the ways Jean Jacket gestures to the systems that oppressively structure human life.

Nevertheless, I think it’s interesting that so many critics have avoided identifying their own work as just such a system. What happens to Nope if we read its central spectacle as that of interpretation, the phantom of meaning that we keep trying to glimpse in each perspective we’re given of its world? After all, a wealth of interpretative possibility has fast become the attraction of not only Peele’s work but horror cinema in general.

Get Out was held up alongside The Babadook (2014) and The Witch (2015) as heralding a wave of so-called ‘elevated’ horror granted credibility as coded representations for the horrors of ordinary life: abuse, abandonment, injustice, racism, and so on. Get Out alone spawned a slew of imitators, which some astutely argued were little more than hollow rehearsals of Black trauma so Hollywood might turn a profit.

The argument against this broader category of ‘elevated’ horror is similar: it’s a canny way to market films to a broader audience that conveniently overlooks the fact horror has always been a genre of big ideas. This spectre of signification was certainly an aspect of the ad campaigns for Nope, from its oblique first trailer to its ‘see it again’ post-release promo. It’s even part of the film’s structure, divided as it is into chapters that are left to the audience to fit together, particularly the flashback to a harrowing ordeal on the set of a sitcom, ‘Gordy’s Home’. The film plays with us—every time we think we’ve laid the puzzle out, it drops another piece in front of us, and we have to start again. By delivering a film that repeatedly, deliberately disturbs the act of interpretation, Peele skewers the expectation put upon horror (indeed, the fantastic more broadly), particularly when produced by Black creatives, to deliver a polemic; a ‘teachable moment’ (for predominantly white audiences). Not only this, but in organising this disturbance around the defiantly nonhuman Jean Jacket, Peele also crafts a first-class work of weird fiction.

The weird—beautifully summed up by Mark Fisher as ‘that which does not belong’—has also been a spectacle on the cultural radar of late, but what Nope does differently is that it doesn’t advertise itself as such. From HBO’s Lovecraft Country (2020), on which Peele was an executive producer, to films like In the Earth (2021), recent onscreen excursions into weird fiction proudly wear their influences on their sleeve. It’s true that Nope certainly puts some influences front-and-centre: everyone has noted its homage to Spielberg (the plot owes much to Jaws and Close Encounters, but there are nods to Duel and even Indiana Jones), as well as the way it toys with familiar formats like the sitcom. But these are arguably part of the playfulness I’ve been discussing, another wrinkle in the map of the film’s meaning. Those texts which, it seems to me, reinforce the film conceptually, remain refreshingly just out of frame, like the alien face OJ finds peering round a corner in a cheeky nod to Communion (1989).

Nope’s relationship to UFO lore is intriguing. There’s a brief mention of declassified footage and the History Channel’s infamous Ancient Aliens programme, but the phenomena Peele actually puts onscreen are of a far more visceral nature. The film begins with the death of OJ’s and Emerald’s father, in a freak rain of objects, including a fatal five-cent piece. It’s a death attributed to a malfunctioning airplane, but we later realise these are objects expelled from Jean Jacket’s digestive system—the ephemera of human existence that can’t be swallowed up. It’s a sequence that revitalises the shock of a familiar narrative in paranormal circles, made famous in the writing of Charles Fort, whose Book of the Damned (1919) catalogued phenomena overlooked by the scientific mainstream, from rains of frogs to early sightings of UFOs. Fort equivocates over the whole lot, always ready with a theory but never with a definitive answer:

I think that we’re fished for. It may be that we’re highly esteemed by super-epicures somewhere. It makes me more cheerful when I think that we may be of some use after all. I think that dragnets have often come down and have been mistaken for whirlwinds and waterspouts. Some accounts of seeming structure in whirlwinds and waterspouts are astonishing. And I have data that, in this book, I can’t take up at all—mysterious disappearances. I think we’re fished for. But this is a little expression on the side: relates to trespassers; has nothing to do with the subject that I shall take up at some other time—or our use to some other mode of seeming that has a legal right to us.

Fort’s ‘cheerful’ speculations take on an increasingly paranoid character in the works of succeeding investigators like John Keel. In Keel’s books, including The Mothman Prophecies (1975), it’s suggested that UFOs and related phenomena are of more-or-less terrestrial origin, the product of an intelligence that exists outside the range of our ordinary sense perception.

Crucially, we’re never told that Jean Jacket comes from outer space. This brings the film even further into the fold of weird fiction, in which things that ‘do not belong’ upend the carefully measured parameters of reality. In her book, Weird Fiction and Science at the Fin De Siècle (2020), Emily Alder argues that weird fiction ‘is a consequence of the kind of worldview that was itself both a consequence and a driver of scientific change in the late nineteenth century.’ Alder points to the theory of evolution, thermodynamics, and the fast-approaching discoveries of particle physics as areas of scientific inquiry that disrupted human ideas of what the world around us was really like, a disruption that propelled those works of horror, fantasy, and science fiction that we have come to call weird. It propels Nope, too: the nightmarish creaks, whistles and shrieks that emanate from the prowling Jean Jacket do not break from as much as they draw attention to the desolate Californian hills that surround the Haywood ranch. The vast, panoramic sky becomes a wellspring of terror not because we recognise it as something we are meant to fear, but because it has become unrecognisable. Peele’s outskirts-of-Hollywood landscape echoes the haunted ecologies of the writers that Alder examines, like Algernon Blackwood or William Hope Hodgson in The Boats of the Glen Carrig (1907):

It filled the evening air with its doleful wailing, and I remarked that there was in it a curious sobbing, most human in its despairful crying. And so awesome was the thing that no man of us spoke; for it seemed that we harked to the weeping of lost souls. And then, as we waited fearfully, the sun sank below the edge of the world, and the dusk was upon us.

And now a more extraordinary thing happened; for, as the night fell with swift gloom, the strange wailing and crying was hushed, and another sound stole out upon the land — a far, sullen growling. At the first, like the crying, it came from far inland; but was caught up speedily on all sides of us, and presently the dark was full of it. And it increased in volume, and strange trumpetings fled across it.

Then there’s Jean Jacket itself, an organism whose flying saucer form cloaks a billowing mass of undulating matter. In the film’s climactic sequence, the creature surges outward into a panoply of almost-familiar shapes—a cowboy hat, a mushroom cloud, a vagina, an angel—before lashing out with a bizarrely square appendage that recalls the flickering cinema screen glimpsed in the film’s opening. The monster contains multitudes, but no one referent exhausts it of its capacity to refer to something else, because the core of its being is outside our frames of reference. One of the thrills of Nope, as a work of weird fiction, is wondering just how much of our stories, our world, is similarly beyond our grasp.

On one level, the film’s title is a celebration of Black genre savvy, as is suggested in the Late Show interview where Peele explains how Night of the Living Dead’s Black leading man knows how to survive the apocalypse because he’s been surviving racism all his life. OJ and Emerald have a knack for knowing when to stay out of Jean Jacket’s way that other characters do not. But ‘nope’ is also the film’s response to the question ‘what is Peele trying to say?’ Peele thumbs his nose at such a question, in what arguably amounts to a deliberate sidestep from ‘elevated’ horror. ‘The point is –’ Emerald starts to say during an early conversation with OJ, before deciding, ‘fuck the point.’ As a colloquial spin on the adage that ‘the map is not the territory’, it has a certain appeal.

The accusation levelled against the genre blockbuster—from mid-career Spielberg to Marvel’s latest cinematic whosit—is that they’re insubstantial; ‘popcorn’ fare. It continues to play out in the repeated claims (most often on social media) that these fictions are intellectually impoverished—a dumbed-down collection of ‘content’ that don’t challenge our interpretive brio. As a result, audiences are bereft of ‘media literacy’, construing text as morality play, or nostalgia trip, but little else.

While this isn’t untrue, it’s worth considering to what extent popular critical discourse got us to that point. Far from liberating the act of reading from academic confines, the ever-widening gyre of online criticism insists upon particular lines of signification, structured by a particular idea of what is relevant, wherein text means something and something only. Jordan Peele’s films can only be about the idea of America, superhero stories can only be about the fantasy of power, the xenomorph can only be about the fear of pregnancy, and so on.

There’s a queasy anthropocentrism running under all this: how is this relevant to me? My life? My insecurities? I do not wish to suggest, as some moronic spectators have, that politics be kept out of these fictions. Rather, that our reading of the fantastic should acknowledge that it reveals a broader spectrum of political possibilities, the wavelengths of which do not necessarily align with conventional, humanist concerns. But many critics—and, as a result, many audiences—still conceive of the fantastic as little more than a series of parables, rather than a series of encounters. The ambiguities of high art remain richly suggestive, while those of genre fiction are written off as the fumbling of artists who ought to know better.

So, as I think the response to Nope demonstrates, we are left unequipped to examine those things that sit outside our ordinary frame of reference. There are nonhuman entities, like Jean Jacket, but other things too, and other places. The ‘Gordy’s Home’ flashback seems to have been inspired by Peele’s dreams, for instance, and when Peele talks about why he felt the need to make a film ‘about’ spectacle, he refers to the deeply weird experience of an ongoing global pandemic. Amongst the countless efforts to make sense or find meaning in the trauma of such an event, one thing does become clear: there are other catastrophes on the horizon. This possibility is part of what makes Nope so haunting, but the film gestures—as ever, obliquely—to other possibilities, other means of getting out.

It’s hard not to cheer at the penultimate shot of OJ astride a horse, having survived his final confrontation with Jean Jacket. That survival is contingent on OJ’s phenomenological approach to the creature. He never asks how it might be made to fit in to his world, but instead spends the film carefully observing—reading?—asking how he might figure into Jean Jacket’s world. After one lucky escape, OJ, Emerald, and Angel shelter in a diner. ‘I don’t think it eats you if you don’t look at it,’ OJ blurts out. ‘Read the room,’ Angel admonishes, and Emerald agrees: ‘Nobody wanna talk about that.’ She’s right. Nobody does, which is a pity—if we did, we might stand a better chance of making it to the final reel.

James Macaronas

James Macaronas is a writer and performer. He is currently wrangling with a PhD at the University of Melbourne School of Culture and Communication, examining the psychedelic experience in postwar science fiction.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *