WATCH: The Meaning Behind Jordan Peele's 'Nope': The Dangers of Pursuing Spectacle

Jordan Peele bends genre conventions once again to deliver a powerful lesson on how spectacle can wreak havoc on society.
by Kole Lyndon Lee - updated on May 10, 2023

There are many layers to peel back in Jordan Peele’s new movie Nope. And of course, there are many theories, themes, and allegories being put forth by everyone who has seen it, all of which are interesting and thought-provoking. But in this article, I want to delve into the meaning behind Nope — how Peele explores the dangers of pursuing spectacle by using his characters to represent different archetypes of people and their relationship to spectacle, all starting from a foundation of subversion.

Check out our video essay below and then continue on for a full breakdown.

[Warning: Spoilers!]

Jordan Peele's Subverts the Horror Genre Again in Nope

We all know Jordan Peele loves to subvert and redefine the horror genre. It's a trademark that he has used as a storytelling tool in all his movies thus far. In Nope, he took this philosophy to a whole new level. He subverted us (the audience) before we even stepped foot into the theater, leading us to believe we were about to see some kind of alien invasion/UFO/science fiction movie. In reality, this movie is more akin to the sub-genre known as the “Creature Feature” — think Jaws, The Thing, Alien, etc. It’s a movie about a group of people facing off with a monster… Who will come out on top?

Subversion That Leads to Immersion

Before I delve into the themes of spectacle, let’s quickly explore why Jordan Peele may have subverted us into thinking we would have a completely different cinematic experience. One word comes to mind: immersion. Jordan Peele himself has said, and I summarize, that if all else fails, he wants to at least create an immersive experience for his audience, sucking us into the reality of the characters and the spectacle on screen.

By subverting our expectations, causing us to let our imaginations run wild before seeing the movie, he creates a cinematic environment that forces us to pay even more attention. Because by the time the true story begins to unfold, we have no idea what is going to happen next. And that level of unexpectedness is how you can truly immerse an audience into a story.

So, What is the Meaning Behind Nope?

The Pursuit of Spectacle

Now, getting back to the idea of pursuing spectacle. As stated above, this movie is about a group of people facing off with a monster — the UFO. The UFO is actually a direct representation of the idea of spectacle itself. Jordan Peele has said in interviews that this movie is about spectacle, Hollywood, fame, celebrity, etc. So when I bring up the word “spectacle,” you can think of it as all of those things and more - anything that deeply captures the attention of us humans, and in most cases, makes us behave in toxic ways.

So, if we start from the notion that the UFO is a representation of the idea of spectacle, how does that frame up against all the primary characters who face off with it?

Let’s explore it…

Ricky: Chasing Spectacle for Fame

Ricky was a child star, starting to achieve fame, tasting what success is and what being “special” means in a society of celebrity worship. One tragic day on the set of a TV show he was starring in with a monkey named Gordy, a balloon loudly pops, scaring Gordy, causing him to have a horrific fit where he kills and disfigures other actors on the show.

Ricky hides under a table and watches in horror, but is distracted by an odd shoe standing upright. Luckily for Ricky, the shoe distracted him from staring into Gordy’s eyes, which saved his life. Gordy never felt threatened by Ricky and even approached him under the table in a friendly way, reaching out to give him a fist bump just as rescuers barged in and shot Gordy in the head, killing him.

Steven Yeun as Ricky in 'Nope'

Steven Yeun as Ricky in Nope

This traumatizing scene stayed with Ricky, but instead of learning his lesson, it left him feeling special - he’s the only one who survived unscathed. Not only that, but he then goes on to commoditize the trauma, creating a theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, where he houses a secret shrine with memorabilia of Gordy and the horrific accident.

How does all this relate to the UFO? Well, because Ricky never learned his lesson about what can happen when pushing the boundaries of spectacle, he lets his ego control him and deludes himself into believing the UFO trusts him. He thinks he can tame it, undermining it, and tries to commoditize it by creating a spectacle out of it - the same way he did with his trauma. What ends up happening? He gets killed by the UFO along with 40 other people he is responsible for.

So, maybe the lesson Jordan Peele is trying to highlight is this: trying to pursue spectacle is not inherently bad, but when you do it with your ego leading you, thinking you are special, thinking you are better than others, someone who does not have to take caution - nothing good will ever come of it. So keep yourself in check.

Antlers: Chasing Spectacle for Glory

Antlers is a famous cinematographer in Hollywood who has already been-there-done-that. He has been through the Hollywood system and is no longer satisfied with the mundane, boring routines that go with shooting on set, which we see in an early scene where he works with the two other main characters. He wants more.

At first, he rejects helping OJ and Emerald because what they offer comes across as nothing special, but after finding out about a mysterious event at Jupiter’s Rach (where Ricky and the 40 people died), he becomes interested and decides to team up with OJ and Emerald.

Michael Wincott as Antlers in 'Nope'

Michael Wincott as Antlers in Nope

But the reason he does it is not to help them. He does it because he wants the “impossible shot” of the UFO, a representation of something that has never been achieved before - a spectacle. You can think of Antlers as the auteur willing to sacrifice everything for his craft. And that is precisely what he does. Instead of being content with a great shot of the UFO, he sacrifices himself for the impossible shot and ends up dying to get it. Whether that shot survived or not is left open-ended, but the message is clear.

Is achieving what has never been achieved before (spectacle) worth sacrificing everything — even yourself?

Angel: Chasing Spectacle for Clout

Angel is the average working guy who hates his average retail job at Fry’s, an electronics store. After OJ and Emerald discover the UFO and decide to pursue getting footage of it, they go to Fry’s to get equipment, which is where they run into Angel.

At first, he is closed off to them. But as he realizes they are doing something exciting and meaningful, he decides to help them. In a conversation with OJ, Angel complains about his ex-girlfriend, revealing a lot about his character. He feels like a loser (after his ex dumped him for a CW show) and an outsider to the Hollywood club. But at the same time, he still seems to care about getting validation from his ex, showing pictures of her to OJ. He cares about OJ’s opinion too, trying to seem cool because he dated someone in the Hollywood club.

Brandon Perea as Angel in 'Nope'

Brandon Perea as Angel in Nope

When he first starts to help OJ and Emerald, he is doing it because he wants to fit in with them, being a part of something more meaningful than his boring retail job. But after almost dying in a horrific encounter with the UFO, his values change. Now, he simply wants to get footage of the UFO so he can try to help the world. So at the end, when the UFO is facing off with everyone head-to-head, after watching Antlers die, he decides to save himself rather than get the footage - the opposite of Antlers. He wraps himself in barbed wire causing the UFO to reject him.

The lesson I got from it? If you are doing things for the right reasons, you might be able to save yourself. It also begs the question again: what are we willing to sacrifice for spectacle?

There’s a moment where Antlers says to Angel, “You don’t deserve the impossible shot.” Chew on that…

Emerald: Chasing Spectacle for Money

After Emerald and OJ’s father dies, Emerald comes to their father’s ranch to help OJ with the business - horse training for Hollywood movies. OJ is serious about keeping the business alive, but Emerald just wants to make money and perhaps further her own career in Hollywood. Not only that, but she was not as close to their father as OJ, so she resists any form of real responsibility tied to the ranch. There are moments throughout the movie where we get insight into why she feels this way, but one of the primary reasons is that her father never gave her the validation she needed when she was a kid. He gave it to OJ, her brother, making her feel like she never quite got the same respect.

Maybe this is why she is pursuing fame in Hollywood? Could be. There are many layers to this movie, but sticking with the primary one; Emerald is the one who comes up with the idea to get footage of the UFO. She wants to sell it to make money, so she can continue pursuing her dreams. OJ, on the other hand, just wants to save the ranch. Regardless of their reason, they team up and get to work.

Keke Palmer as Emerald in 'Nope'

Keke Palmer as Emerald in Nope

As Emerald and OJ face off with the UFO, they become closer, realizing how important they are to each other. As the UFO gets the upper hand, Emerald’s focus shifts from wanting to get the money shot to just wanting to save herself and OJ. She and OJ are forced into a situation where one of them will have to distract the UFO, so OJ decides to sacrifice himself to let Emerald get away, finally validating her and loving her fully. And she must let go of him so that at least one of them will be able to live on. But, rather than just running from the UFO, she thinks fast and figures out a way to stop it.

For me, Emerald represents learning to let go. She not only had to let go of what was initially driving her, getting the money shot, but she also had to let go of her brother. And in doing so, she was able to stop the UFO from causing any more havoc.

OJ: Does NOT Chase Spectacle

After OJ’s father died, he was left to run the ranch, which he is excellent at. He knows how to tame the horses and likes to work - the exact opposite of Emerald. Emerald knows how to put on a show and sell but hates working. But this dynamic is precisely why they came back together after their father died, trying to save the ranch from dying as well. From the moment we are introduced to OJ, we immediately realize he does not care about spectacle. He cares about the ranch, his father, and keeping the family name alive. But this lack of interest in spectacle is what is causing the ranch’s downfall.

As mentioned above, as OJ and Emerald face off with the UFO, they become closer and learn how to work together effectively. Emerald is like a director, while OJ is like the primary actor. She creates the vision. He makes it happen. In fact, all the characters can be seen as workers on a set, but that’s another article to write.

Daniel Kaluuya as OJ in 'Nope'

Daniel Kaluuya as OJ in Nope

OJ and Emerald finally learn to work together to execute a plan, but it is too late. The UFO gets the upper hand and completely ruins their initial idea of getting the money shot. And this is where OJ’s lack of spectacle-care comes into play. Because OJ learned how to face danger, tame the horses, and work hard, he realizes that it is up to him to “tame” the UFO, and his detachment from spectacle is what gives him the courage to do so. Not only that, but knowing how to tame the horses gave him the knowledge to recognize the animalistic behavior of the UFO - you cannot look directly at it. That is what causes it to come at you.

In the end, OJ finally faces the UFO, eye-to-eye, and distracts it for just enough time to allow Emerald to get away, which allows her to stop it. And it is also left open-ended at the end if OJ even died or not. He reappears under a sign reading “Out Yonder” atop his horse as epically as possible.

The lesson I take from this? Maybe it is the people who do not care about spectacle, the people who can detach from it, who end up becoming the spectacle themselves, leaving an impact that goes beyond their own lifetime.

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Of course, Nope has many other themes and ways to interrupt them. But, for me, Jordan Peele’s exploration of the toxic relationships humans have with this constant need for spectacle was the most powerful theme of all.

Jordan Peele brought a creature to the screen in a way that has never been done before, making an innovative, entertaining, and fun cinematic experience with a great narrative and a lot to chew on in terms of theme. But even more importantly, he told a great story about people having to come together to face something bigger than themselves.

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