Jordan Peele’s *NOPE* Is Cosmic Horror For This Century

I really, really enjoyed Jordan Peele’s Nope, and more on the second viewing than the first. It is a very well crafted film that defies expectations – and yes, you should walk into the film as absolutely free of them as you can manage. The R rating is largely for cursing (which happens throughout) and drug use and vaping.

Nope is also a horror movie where the horror is not from jump scares or gore (when violence happens, it’s almost entirely off-screen (though often just off screen), but through the implications of the story itself.

Mild to OMG MAJOR spoilers for Nope, From Dusk Till Dawn, Stranger Things, and maybe some other properties ahead.

Spoilers ahead! Don't scroll down if you don't want to see them!
Spoilers ahead! Don't scroll down if you don't want to see them!

Let me start reviewing Nope by saying that I do not care for the Tarantino/Rodriguez team-up From Dusk Till Dawn, but I absolutely adore Nope.

From Dusk Till Dawn is, in my opinion, two movies stitched together. The first half is a classic Tarantino talky crime banterfest, which suddenly transforms into a completely different movie with no warning. The tone, plot, and everything else shift with the harshness of a scratching record. To me, that feels like a gimmick, as if Megan Thee Stallion suddenly started performing Metallica’s "Master of Puppets."

RIP Eddie.

At first glance, Nope also shifts tone. More than once. But unlike the other film, the tonal shift is not precipitated by sudden changes in the plot of the film, but rather our expectations. As new information is revealed to the protagonists – and us – their attitude changes, which changes everything else. The tonal changes felt organic and like outgrowths of the character’s personalities. They are not record scratches, but redirects and misdirects, a technique that Peele honed during his comedic time with Keegan-Michael Key, the horror equivalent of comedic songs that make you think they’re going to curse: "I knew a guy who was down on his luck / he might have been poor, but he liked to FISH".

Likewise, time jumps tend to annoy me – see the first season of The Witcher for an example of how to do it badly. There, the time jumps are unsignaled, but in Nope there’s clear demarcations demonstrating when the focus shifts back and forth from the past.

Yes, I also finished the first viewing with more questions than answers. And after a second viewing, there are some questions that remain – but those are questions that I do not think should be answered. But everything else that matters – specifically why the events of the movie unfold the way they do – are answered in full. Sometimes with a line of dialogue, sometimes by thinking things through.

While others have dissected the "themes" and "meaning" of the film, I want to focus on the plot of the story here, and to do that, we have to reassemble the film’s events (at least regarding the critter) into chronological order.

  • Gordy brings Ricky "Jupe" Park’s TV career to a traumatic halt with his on-set assault.
  • The "Gold Rush" attraction next door to Haywood Ranch goes bankrupt, and is bought by Jupe, and renamed "Jupiter’s Claim".
  • Three years pass.
  • "Jean Jacket" shows up and consumes one of Jupe’s horses in front of him; he believes the entity to be a UFO. This is also the same time that Otis senior is killed. It’s possible – even probable – that Jean Jacket was being a "transient" at this point, having picked off the hikers earlier (and their detritus killing Otis Senior) before Jupe sees him.
  • During the next off-screen six months, Jupe keeps buying horses one at a time from the Haywoods, despite there not being not that many horses visible at "Jupiter’s Claim". Jupe knows the horses he bought are gone – he is glad of the distraction from OJ’s wanting to buy the horses back from him eventually. Jupe also wants to buy the ranch – "Su casa is mi casa" he says when Em starts looking around his office – presumably to keep the Haywoods from stumbling over Jean Jacket.
  • Jupe has been practicing Pavlovian training to draw out Jean Jacket. This free food source We see this at the beginning when Ghost escapes and runs down the valley toward Jupiter’s Claim. The lights are all on at Jupiter’s Claim, and we hear Jupe himself practicing the speech he later gives. To answer one of Screen Rant’s questions – I don’t think you can directly see Jupiter’s Claim from the Haywood ranch – we only see it when OJ goes further out into the ranch to chase Ghost, despite what Screen Rant claims. Additionally, OJ is pretty obviously an "early to bed early to rise" kind of guy most of the time and has been focused on chores and the ranch, not whatever Jupe is doing.
  • Ghost is consumed by Jean Jacket, who is then drawn to the Haywood ranch by the light and sound that Em – who is usually not there partying – is creating. At that point, Jean Jacket’s "range" or "territory" grows to include not just Jupiter’s Claim, but the Haywood ranch as well.

At that point, the rest of the events of the movie are pretty much portrayed in chronological order.

Yet there’s people and sites – such as this Screen Rant article "Nope: 10 Things That Didn’t Make Sense About The Movie" – that claim there are mistakes and plot holes, but they’re missing things. So let’s get into those.

First, yes, a coin could kill Otis Senior – because unlike the Mythbusters experiment cited, the coin does not go through the thick top of the skull, but the MUCH thinner bone behind the ocular cavity. Remember, there’s an actual hole there for the optical nerve to pass through.

So why is there so much screen time devoted to Gordy? Double duty. It explains both Jupe’s actions and gives a character arc – Jupe not only makes the same mistake that Gordy’s handler’s made, but also shows that he’s reached a point of desperation where Jupe thinks that he and his family alone are not enough to be successful. A good guess, given the failure of "Gold Rush" in the same location a few years before. The most successful part of his theme park is his semi-secret shrine to Gordy that he charges people to visit; it’s no surprise that he then tries to hitch his star to another external entity.

Why the name Jean Jacket? It’s again double duty – not only does it tie the critter to a "hard to tame" horse, but more importantly, provides the arc for Em’s transition from absolutely incompetent animal handler (even flubbing the safety briefing at the beginning COMPLETELY) to being the one who is actually able to "break" the creature, as well as showing how OJ and Em’s relationship has been rebuilt by this ordeal to the intensity and love they had as children (the "looking at you" bit).

Why does Jean Jacket hide so much of the time? Because it’s a predator, and specifically a transient predator. I’m reminded of this passage talking about the two big categories of orcas in the Peter Watts novel Blindsight:

"I said forget the language. Think about the lifestyle. Residents are fish-eaters, eh? They hang out in big groups, don’t move around much, talk all the time." … "Transients, now—they eat mammals. Seals, sea lions, smart prey. Smart enough to take cover when they hear a fluke slap or a click train. So transients are sneaky, eh? Hunt in small groups, range all over the place, keep their mouths shut so nobody hears ’em coming."

Blindsight, Peter Watts

So yes, Jean Jacket hides a lot of the time, especially now that it found a reliable food source.

How/why does Angel survive? Dumb luck. While he was wrapping himself in the tarp (which caused him to stop staring at it when he first got hit by it), he was also tangled in the barbed-wire fence. You can actually see him still attached to the fence as he’s pulled skyward, which is what keeps him from being drawn into Jean Jacket. Sure, he probably should have a few more broken bones and a concussion, but…

Why doesn’t Lucky die in the Star Lasso Experience? Because Jupe fastened that cage down. While Jean Jacket consistently pulls loose objects into itself, it’s only after consuming all the people there that it has the … strength? energy? … to do enough to damage the Haywood ranch. The entirety of Jupiter’s Claim is left intact, so why expect another building there to be lifted up? Glass (even plexiglass) is heavy.

Perhaps the most obvious of Screen Rant’s questions, though – and one I heard in the theater – was asking why OJ didn’t notice Jean Jacket for six months. As Screen Rant puts it:

Not only does he not notice the strange cloud hovering around the Agua Dulce ranch, but he also doesn’t pay attention to the power outages, or the reports of the people who have gone missing.

There’s two big reasons. The first is that Jean Jacket had – until Ghost and Em accidentally attracted its attention – been sticking around Jupiter’s Claim and largely staying out of sight. The power outages have a radius that does not extend all the way from Jupiter’s Claim to the Haywood ranch, so if the very practical and matter-of-fact OJ had not been looking, he wouldn’t have noticed any of it. Would you notice a power outage two blocks away if it didn’t affect you?

The other is something called "inattention blindness". Our brains edit out things that we don’t expect to see, particularly if the strange thing is something that doesn’t pose an immediate threat or opportunity for us. Again, can you tell me which clouds were where the last time you looked out the window? I sure couldn’t. And thanks to, well, geography, it’s not uncommon for similar conditions to produce similar clouds on a regular basis.

There are three broad groups of questions I’ve heard that I don’t have answers for.

I don’t have any explanations why Holst shoots on a particular type of film, or doesn’t have a reload canister ready. (They start shooting beforehand because Holst is documenting the whole thing, not just the appearance of Jean Jacket, so yes, he wants the whole thing on his IMAX camera. Holst is obsessed with legacy more than any of the others – also why he goes to get the "impossible" shot, trying to secure his legacy at the cost of his life.)

I don’t know why satellites don’t pick up Jean Jacket’s EM disturbances. Then again, we don’t know squat about Jean Jacket’s EM disturbances, other than they have a limited range and kill power sources. It’s also not an EMP in the way that we normally think about it – because the devices come back on without their memory or drives corrupted.

The third category is about Jean Jacket, and I think that our ignorance there is the point.

Where was Jean Jacket before all this? Don’t know. Where did it come from? Don’t know. And I think we shouldn’t.

Jean Jacket’s design is not that of a typical movie monster. It is alien as hell, combining flowing forms with right angles that nature simply does not make. It moves in ways that are frankly impossible. And in this, Jean Jacket achieves something that no number of Pacific Rim kaiju can: it is eldritch and occult. Though we have a slow reveal of the creature, as in most horror films, in comparison to, say, Alien, it is fully revealed fairly early on.

But unlike a "traditional" monster that frightens through its appearance, the horror of Jean Jacket is through what it implies.

Jean Jacket’s (frankly beautiful) final design and form, along with its unknown origin and movements, are what make it a thing of cosmic horror. The questions left behind are those that Lovecraft originally left us with a century ago. Its form may be now known to us – but its mysterious origins and abilities – as well as whether it is the only one – make us consider our place in the universe.

Yes, Jean Jacket is a creature. And yes, it does have some predictable behaviors based on predator/prey relationships.

And that’s the scary part, because that’s all we know.

Think about it. Jean Jacket does not know about fake horses, or about technology. Less so than coyotes, wolves, or other terrestrial predators that have been forced to coexist with humans over the last century.

So presumably, Jean Jacket is either new to the neighborhood, a juvenile, or both.

Again, Jean Jacket – and presumably its species – are transients. Not just transients to California.

Transients to Earth.

Transients that, perhaps, last came by this part of space seventy-odd years ago and thirty five years after that, at the heights of the UFO crazes. Perhaps earlier, if you count pre-WWII sightings like these and these and these.

Unlike the Predator race – whose motives are ultimately understandable by humans – the motivations, numbers, and so on of Jean Jacket’s species are simply unknown. Forget whether or not Jean Jacket might have survived. That’s not important.

We don’t know if Jean Jacket was defeated out of a lack of intelligence – or simply because it was ignorant.

The Haywoods and Angel should enjoy their victory over Jean Jacket.

Because we don’t know if there are more.

And if the next one might be just a little bit older, and a little bit smarter.

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