Friday, September 2, 2022

PEELE'S NOPE LOTS TO UNPACK

Daniel Kaluuya is haunted by a UFO in NOPE.

The best science fiction and horror tales don’t just describe weird monsters from another world or a supernatural dimension. They investigate those bloodthirsty veins of dark emotion in our souls—fear, greed, hatred, bigotry, jealousy. Stephen King understands this, as did Rod Serling before him and a whole host of the New Wave SF writers.

Jordan Peele is their inheritor in film these days, and his latest SF/horror mashup, NOPE, is a perfect example of how the external alien monster is just a projection of the human victims’ inner demons. Oh, it’s scary enough—and the special effects make it eerily beautiful to look at once it shows up in its full, day-lit glory—but the truly frightening stuff in Peele’s film is found in the hearts of some of his human characters.

This is a dense film, full of symbolism and lots of Easter eggs for film fans, SF fans and horror fans alike. I enjoyed putting together all its puzzles, but I will admit I needed to do a little research online to help me figure a few things out. If I’d had time, I would have just watched it again. I don’t agree with critics who have called it disorganized. That is most definitely not the case; there is just a lot to absorb here on one viewing.

Let’s start with the title, NOPE, which is the typical reaction from both Black folks facing a dubious situation and anyone who runs screaming from the idea of watching a horror movie. (I have a few of those friends.) Peele is playing off both those cliches in his title, and he makes use of the quote multiple times in the film, too, when his Black protagonists see something scary, in much the way we Southerners might say, “Oh, hell no!” But there are a lot of online commenters who insist the title stands for NOT OF THIS EARTH, giving us a hint of what’s to come in the film.

Peele has plenty to say in the film, starting with a quote at the beginning from the Bible’s Book of Nahum: I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle. Though that’s not a particularly familiar Old Testament verse, the word spectacle is key to what Peele is trying to get to in NOPE—that we humans will do just about anything, pay just about any price, to watch a sufficiently entertaining spectacle. We’ll rubberneck an accident on the highway, watch “contestants” backstab each other to win the affection of THE BACHELOR, seek out gory slasher movies, and laugh at wipeouts on silly TV obstacle races or RIDICULOUSNESS videos. And some folks will do much, much worse on YouTube.

In NOPE, Peele focuses his lens (and his symbolism) primarily on animals as the unhappy subjects of these spectacles, and the consequences of exploiting trained animals (like horses and chimpanzees) for our amusement. But that’s just a plot device that allows him to say something about the exploitation of people of color and/or the lower classes for the benefit of white, upper-class society. All of which could be tedious in the extreme if Peele weren’t such an entertaining filmmaker, and this film weren’t full of action, jump scares, cool special effects and great acting from principal actors Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Stephen Yuen.

But what is the film about? Well, briefly, it’s about the Haywood siblings (Kaluuya and Palmer), who have just inherited a failing ranch in the California hills that trains horses for the Hollywood film industry. As Palmer’s character puts it, “Since pictures began to move, we’ve had skin in the game.” Close to bankruptcy, they’ve been forced to start selling off the horses to the owner of a neighboring theme park, Jupe’s Claim (Yuen), who, it turns out, is putting them to a nefarious use. When a UFO starts stalking the remote valley, all parties try taking advantage of what they see as an opportunity. It’s useful to remember that opening quote, though, and the idea that wild things can’t be controlled.

It's difficult to say anything more without giving everything away. (Hear my spoiler-y complete review here.) NOPE may not be the simple, straightforward science fiction/horror mashup that audiences expect, but it’s chock full of great characters, interesting ideas, thoughtful themes, eye-popping effects and dark humor. Keep your mind engaged, and I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Cheers, Donna

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