Photo: Jordan Peele
A Jordan Peele Film: Part I
It’s a spectacle. It’s history. It’s the first Black UFO movie brought to the silver screen. It’s horror, and it’s comedy, and it’s too many ideas to count. It’s all of that as Jordan Peele would proudly tell you. Ultimately though, ‘Nope’ is but a concept, muddled by its own ambition. ‘Nope’ shoots for the stars, but never really leaves the ground.
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With the release of ‘Nope’, Jordan Peele became the first Black director to have his own permanent set piece at Universal studios. Jupiter’s Claim, a theme park in the film with a lot of, ahem, thematic importance (now accessible for the price of Universal Studios’ day pass), opened to coincide with the date of the film’s release. It’s an old Western ghost town with an extraterrestrial twist — sort of the Great Frontier meets the New Frontier. “It was the kinda juxtaposition that was very ‘me’ I thought,” Peele told USA Today in an interview on the set.
He’s right — it is a very “Jordan Peele” place, complete with wreckage from a deadly event that takes place in the movie along with some stuffed aliens, and a winking inflatable gunslinger. It’s what we’ve come to expect from Peele: surreal and eerie with a sneaking sense of humor. But it’s also “Jordan Peele” in an inadvertent way, a way that has loomed increasingly large with each subsequent film of his, most of all in ‘Nope’. But more on that later.
Peele’s 2017 debut caused an international stir that shocked, terrified, and delighted viewers in the genre-bending, racist nightmare that was ‘Get Out’. So rare is a classic horror flick that renders the genre new yet familiar, yet here was sketch comedian-turned-director Jordan Peele hitting a much-needed “refresh.” Throw in the film’s relevant and profound venture into the lurking terror of racism, groundbreaking in post-Obama America, and you have the phenomenon that started it all. From there, fan theories, University courses, and an Oscar win for Peele followed.
Jordan Peele – 32 Facts
Really, though, what made ‘Get Out’ so watchable was its protagonist, Chris, for whom Kaluuya (who now stars in ‘Nope’) deserves a lot of credit in evoking. The sadness of his mom’s death, his realistic friendship with Rod, and the spine-shivering relatability of the “Sunken Place” gave every viewer, regardless of race, the same visceral connection to the story’s hero. Even the title, like its audience, writhed with the tension of Chris’s fate, amplifying the horror like it was our own. Because at its core, ‘Get Out’ was a character-driven, emotionally true story. A nail-biter, that also managed to unite its timely social insight with the feeling of something real and grounded.
Ever since, the buzz around anything Jordan Peele has flirted with the “g-word” — from think pieces like these to literally thousands of tweets. Peele could have retired then and there and spent the rest of his years as a guest lecturer for the UCLA course dedicated to his debut film.
But then came 2019’s ‘Us,’ a more surreal, conceptually sophisticated movie that illustrated the double reality of class in America. Despite some good reviews, audience reception was lackluster — its $255 million box office performance coasting largely off the hype of its predecessor. To many fans of ‘Get Out’, it seemed that Peele had sacrificed some of the classic story beats that made ‘Get Out’ tick for a convoluted and far-reaching plot. Peele enjoyed a larger budget which nabbed some great acting (Lupita N’yongo shines) and even better cinematography, but the extremely ambitious premise of ‘Us’ was impossible to follow through on. Peele clearly had the moviemaking magic within him, but had gotten caught up in his own hype, thinking bigger — bigger metaphors, bigger commentary, and bigger premise — was better. With ‘Us’ Peele tells the audience that our underlying prejudice was pervasive and scary, but never grounded it in an emotional story, like Chris’s. It was too busy trying to demonstrate its own profundity. Still, the praise persisted, as we thought ‘Us’ was a well-intentioned, sophomore slump for a future great filmmaker. Maybe even a “g-word.”
Then came ‘Nope’.
Listen: don’t see ‘Nope’ with your parents. Unless you want nothing but grumbling on the car ride home about “why can’t movies just be movies?” Peele, however, has seemed to have lost interest in making movies, because ‘Nope,’ as he says, is a “concept” — a “spectacle.”
When I first saw ‘Nope’ in theaters, there was a palpable silence when the credits rolled. It was a silence of uncertainty, as everyone was glancing around to see if anyone else knew what to think. I left in a sort of trance, unsure if I’d just witnessed a masterpiece beyond my comprehension or… no. It must’ve been too sophisticated to comprehend the first go around. After all, this was the heir to the emerging dynasty of Jordan Peele Cinema. After the second time, through two hours of note scribbling and careful analysis, I was still reduced to Googling “‘Nope’ ending explained” before I even left my seat. Some moviegoers did the same, loudly discussing the meaning of the film’s extensive imagery. Surely, we must have missed something, because, well… that was it?
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I let the dust settle for a while (and there is plenty of dust in this Western reimagined), but still, nothing came. The third time I saw it, I understood. ‘Nope’ is not meant to be simply watched. It is meant to be analyzed, argued over, and tweeted about. The emotional content of its story is almost completely abridged in lieu of its metaphorical and social significance.
The film opens on the set of “Gordy’s Home,” a fictional 90’s sitcom that had become legendary due to Gordy’s the monkey’s mauling of several cast members during a taping. The scene focuses on childhood “Jupe”’s point of view and his quiet survival of the event while focusing on a curiously upright shoe. Then, we get to the movie. Set mostly on a horse farm outside L.A. called Haywood Hollywood Horses, the film follows the Haywood family who provides animals for TV and movies. The owner, Otis Sr. (Keith David), dies under mysterious circumstances, passing on the ranch to his farmhand son Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and clout-chasing daughter Emerald (Keke Palmer). As it turns out, they are descendants of the Black jockey depicted in the first ever motion picture, giving them “skin in the game” since movies began. After a failed safety gig where OJ loses control of a horse that glimpses its own reflection, we visit Jupiter’s Claim, where Jupe (Steven Yuen), whom we met briefly as a child in the opening scene, is exploiting his former fame in a theme park by buying OJ’s horses and feeding them to a, you guessed it (or maybe you didn’t), UFO. Without spoiling too much: chaos ensues, as chaos tends to, and the Haywoods save the day and capture footage of the thing while doing it.
Obviously, there were grand intentions, with Biblical references, an invocation of the first motion picture, and lots of commentary on human and animal nature. Not to mention a marketing campaign of mystery and allure that could have just as readily portended the second coming of Christ as the new Jordan Peele. On top of that, everyone wants to like this movie. Everyone wants another ‘Get Out’ moment from Peele, so much so that they were mostly willing to overlook the untidy heap of ‘Us.’ But once again, Peele promises much and delivers little.
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Mostly, as he reiterates, it’s a film about “spectacle” and our addiction to it as a culture. Of which, he admits he and his interviewer are a “guilty party.” Apt, you might think, for a time when our culture of needless sensationalism is kindled by media of all sorts. Yet in making this movie, he adds fuel to the raging fire. In an interview with GQ Peele says, “I felt like the big summer blockbuster spectacle film, and specifically the Great American Flying Saucer Story is something where I haven’t felt my perspective represented to the fullest.” So he made that movie. Lovely. But it’s also a “response to that first film” of the Black man on the horse, set in a classic Western style. And hold on: don’t forget that all “the themes and characters in this movie represent the media in some way,” according to Peele as well.
Apparently, ‘Nope’ is a self-reflexive, meta-commentary on our media culture’s addiction to “spectacle-ization,” (his word) while also being a racial subversion of the UFO and Western genre. It also has a monkey named Gordy.
Related article: ‘Nope’: A Grand Spectacle in Filmmaking and the Horror Genre
A Jordan Peele Film: Part II
It isn’t that all these things are mutually exclusive — although Peele proves they are in his execution — but Peele has clearly forgotten what makes a good movie: Chris, his ‘Get Out’ protagonist. Instead of connecting us to his characters or monsters, Peele makes them stand-ins for media tropes, without giving us a reason to care what happens to them. Though he makes some last-ditch efforts to emphasize OJ and Emerald’s connection, they are unconvincing and haphazard. Peele sacrifices good characters for his exciting spectacle, and without the visceral connection, the movie pays the price. Instead of a character-driven plot, things just, sort of, happen because they have to in order for Peele to close the loops on his commentary. Evidenced by this is the third act, which turns into some ‘Home Alone’ style, booby trap plan that seems, unlike anything the characters would actually do.
‘Nope’ is about everything but its own story. It has commentary for itself, for society, for movie making, and media, but it lacks essence. It has so many opinions that ultimately it has nothing to say. You leave ‘Nope’ with a few surreal visuals stuck in your head: a bloody inter-primate fist bump, inflatable car dealership dancers sprinkled across a barren gulch, a chrome TMZ reporter, an inexplicably upright shoe. But no characters to connect them to. It’s a shame because, boy, is Keke Palmer good in this.
While ‘Nope’ is a complex work of social commentary, it is infuriatingly bad as a movie. Peele’s conceptual ambition hijacks what could have been something good and reconfigures it beyond recognition.
Peele, it would seem, has become enamored with the idea of a ‘Jordan Peele film.’ While that used to mean a unique blend of horror and comedy, more and more it’s meant a lot of hype with dwindling coherence.
“When you watch a Jordan Peele film now, you know it’s a Jordan Peele film,” says the interviewer. “I love that,” responds Peele. “To hear people say that they can see me in there I feel like, yeah, you do.” Granted, he’s being fed the questions, but Peele, with his newfound, crackly director’s voice and Woody Allen glasses, can’t help but pontificate about his own style and the legacy of his work. Peele has no qualms playing the part of “genius” regardless of how well this movie does. And Universal is certainly banking on it, immortalizing the set of his latest film before an iota of reception by fans or critics. In his interview on set at Jupiter’s Claim, and countless more, it’s evident Peele harbors special pride for his theme park at Universal, particularly as the first Black director to have the honor. And who wouldn’t? It’s a physical homage to his and his people’s filmmaking contributions. But the park’s opening coinciding with the film’s release has already come to signify a new aspect of a Jordan Peele film: hype over substance.
In their next horror venture, Universal plans to release “Halloween Ends” on October.14th.
Director/Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Keith David
Producers: Jordan Peele, Robert Graf, Tony Ducret, Kate Kelly, Ian Cooper, Sara Scott
By Patrick Lynott
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