This post contains major spoilers for Nope.
The party line about Nope, Jordan Peele’s latest cipher-laden horror story, is that it’s a story about spectacles. People love spectacles, but can be driven down by them, devoured by them. Peele nods to this capacity for destruction at the start of the film, opening it with the Bible verse Nahum 3:6: “And I will cast abominable filth upon thee, and make thee vile, and will set thee as a spectacle.”
For the next two hours and 11 minutes, the film makes good on this dark prophecy. In Nope, siblings OJ (a transfixing Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (the inimitable Keke Palmer) run the family business, training horses for film and TV productions. The company is middling, in spite of its legendary roots: Emerald and OJ descend from the man featured in the first moving image, a jockey riding a horse, which is based on the real life moving image. To make ends meet, OJ sells horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Stephen Yeun), a former child star who now runs a Western-themed amusement park called Jupiter’s Claim nearby.
But things get surreal, and then downright terrifying, when they learn that a giant UFO-like creature has taken up residence behind a cloud in their part of the world, descending to eat people and horses alike. Teaming up with a stonerific IT guy, Angel (Brandon Perea) and, later, a grizzled cinematographer, Antlers (Michael Wincott), they set out to get a video of the creature (the “Oprah” shot) and share it with the world, trading the footage for money and glory. What they don’t know is that Jupe is also aware of the monster and is gearing up to perform a high-wire act at his park, during which he lures it into his rodeo. (The plan turns fatal when the monster slurps up Jupe and his entire audience, whom he calls “the Viewers.”) OJ and Emerald’s plans also continually go awry, and, in the end, Emerald has to destroy the monster—whom they nickname “Jean Jacket,” after the horse Emerald was supposed to train, before her father gave it away. She sends a massive balloon boy from Jupe’s park into the air and the monster foolishly eats it, then explodes. Emerald doesn’t get the Oprah shot, but she captures one beautiful photo of the alien by using an old-timey camera built into a well at Jupe’s park, which she has to crank and crank just to make a single image.
Upon initial viewing, the ending feels somewhat muted. Humanity triumphs over the spectacle, yes, but this catastrophic event is contained to this little part of the world. Emerald kills the monster on her own, then reunites with OJ. It feels abrupt, almost. By the time it’s all over, the spectacle feels empty.
But that is, in a way, the point of the narrative. It plays into the theme that Peele is exploring: building up a huge spectacle and, showing along the way, how terrible it is for the humans at the center of the story. Emerald and OJ (named, rather pointedly, after a certain true crime fixture) spend the film trying to find a way to capture a shot of the alien, excited for the spectacle it will cause once they release it in the world. They’re not really doing it for anything other than money and temporary fame, two reasons that feel morally thin. As they learn more about the monster, and draw more collaborators into their mission, they start to realize how foolhardy it is. The spectacle is like a black hole, destroying anyone who gets too close.
OJ learns early on that the monster won’t kill you if you don’t look at it. For the rest of the film, he’s able to not look away, which is how he survives where others don’t. (He’s also aided by his horse, Lucky, whom we learn early on doesn’t look anyone or anything in the eye; together, they’re contemporary answer to OJ’s great-great grandfather.) There’s an idea that looking too much at a spectacle destroys you. On that symbolic note, that’s also perhaps why the alien transforms into such a beautiful creature by the end. It wants to be seen and looked at. Only then can it survive and grow into a more beautiful and deadly version of itself.
This idea is also undergirded by Jupe’s arc in the film. Early on, it’s revealed that he was a child star on a sitcom about a domesticated chimpanzee named Gordy. The show was canceled after a freak accident where Gordy snaps, then maims and kills nearly everyone on set. The only person he doesn’t kill is Jupe; instead, Gordy approaches him and fist-bumps him. From that moment, Jupe develops something of a god complex. Instead of shutting down, he cashes in on the catastrophe, building a special, museum-quality room in his office that’s full of show memorabilia. (Including that mysterious pointed shoe that was left behind in Gordy’s rampage.) It’s so exclusive that he typically charges people to see it, allowing super-obsessed fans to stay in the room overnight. It’s that connection with Gordy that also leads Jupe to think he can not only tame Jean Jacket, but also monetize him, developing a rodeo show in which he lures the alien out from behind the clouds and down toward a paying audience. That plan is instantly dashed once everyone looks at Jean Jacket, who devours everyone in sight.
When Emerald kills Jean Jacket with the giant balloon boy, it’s not immediately clear what the connection is. However, perhaps it was a way to tie Jupe into the alien’s defeat, giving him some small hand in the victory. (Gordy’s sitcom rampage, it’s worth noting, was triggered by a balloon that pops on set.) It is clear, though, why Emerald ends up at his park to take the final, triumphant photo. Over the course of the story, we see that Jean Jacket is an electricity vacuum, making it nearly impossible to film him. Peele delights in taking away his characters’ tools. He dashes their fancy security cameras and smartphones, then eliminates the film camera. By then, all that’s left is the giant camera in the well at the rodeo, that Emerald has to crank by hand. All that extraordinary effort and devastation, for a single shot, the only thing left of the spectacle.