Nope: The Subversion of Spectacle
by Aysel Atamdede
We like to be scared. We want to be awed. When we see a big-budget movie, we expect to see a spectacle. We can build up expectations in our minds, depending on the conventions of a movie’s genre and memories of similarly-marketed films in the past. What could be bigger, badder or more exciting than an alien film from the mind of Jordan Peele? Can he top the sleeper hit that was Get Out? Can he live up to the hype of Us? What do we say when we see the alien in all its glory for the first time on screen?
Nope. It’s phenomenal. It’s not what a lot of people expected, and that’s the point. There are plenty of movies about aliens and humans fighting against them. The Alien films with Sigourney Weaver helped define a genre of intense space action. Independence Day was an explosion-filled romp. Pacific Rim gave us Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em robots fighting giant interdimensional monsters. They were all spectacles. Visually pleasing, soaring scores, flashing guns and intense action. Yet, despite all the similar genre conventions present in Nope, Peele delivers a film closer in spirit to M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs than anything else we expected.
Let’s talk about genre conventions. They’re what define stories as genres — the themes, tropes, characters and plot beats that help us classify something and categorize it with other similar stories. Over time, audiences have been trained to recognize and expect certain elements to be present in a genre, so when a narrative fails to include or even acknowledge these elements, we may feel disappointed or unhappy. Attempts to subvert expectations don’t always work because of this, and so often, creators shy away from pushing the boundaries or trying new things. Especially with horror, it’s hard to break from the mold that makes things scary in a new way.
For horror, we expect the scares. We hope to be teased with the monster hiding in the shadows, characters concocting wild theories and the now-typical search engine montage as they type “alien” into their browser and see what comes up. Rarely do we see the monster in the daytime; rarely do we see the characters jump so quickly to a correct conclusion. In the film, the character OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) asks an incredibly poignant question:
“What’s a bad miracle?”
It makes you stop and think. We know what miracles are: something unexpected but welcome, inexplicable by logic or science, a sign of good things to come. So, when OJ asks what a bad miracle can look like, isn’t that precisely what the arrival of the alien entity in Nope is? Seen by Emerald (Keke Palmer) as a miracle on the surface, it’s the promise of fame, money, notoriety and the thing that’ll put the Haywood farm back on the map if they can get even one picture of it.
The character Jupe (Steven Yeun) also sees it as a miracle to save his struggling Wild West-themed theme park and bring him back into the spotlight after his child-star golden days have waned. The nature documentary director Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) sees it as the impossible shot to cement him in film history forever. Each of the main cast sees the arrival of the alien as a miracle. It’s only OJ who questions if it’s a bad miracle. Horses and people have gone missing. The creature moves like a hunter, establishing a territory and challenging the Haywoods for dominance.
OJ sees past the glitz and glamour and understands what this is — a threat that could be all of their undoing if they remain blind to it. Just like Jupe’s childhood claim to fame with the tragic ending of Gordy’s Home, the alien is a portent of a bad miracle.
Regarding aliens, we’ve strangely come to expect them to look somewhat “familiar.” Surely, creatures that evolved on a planet entirely different from Earth would look different from us, right? Yet how often do aliens have two arms and two legs, are roughly humanoid in stature and have features that somewhat look human without hitting the uncanny valley? They’re supposed to be alien, but we’re unconsciously limiting our imaginations to “what if Earth but not.” To create something genuinely unearthly, we have to break the rules. Ignore physics. Think outside the box.
After all, what’s more alien than something that defies how we understand reality? The greatest subversion of expectations in Nope is the dawning horror of realizing the alien craft isn’t a craft: the entire thing is the alien, with impossible physicality and breaking the laws of physics to soar silently and effortlessly through the air. This fundamental misunderstanding of what the alien is becomes Jupe’s ultimate undoing, yet when OJ realizes what they’re dealing with, it becomes their greatest strength in fighting back.
Nope is an exercise in subverting expectations and genre conventions. Peele is fully aware of what the audience expects from an alien movie and teases us with that for the film’s first half. The Haywood Ranch is the target of alien abductions, with horses being sucked into the sky and hikers going missing. Glimpses of a disc-like object soundlessly soaring through the night sky haunt the characters and build the suspense of what creepy things could be lurking inside. We want to see the UFO. We long to see what’s hiding inside. What we’re not expecting is the ship not to be a ship. Our desire to spectate is what seals our fates.
The human desire to witness without participating is what Peele deconstructs in this movie to masterful effect. And, in my opinion, the most potent aspect of the film is that we get to see the alien in its full form, unobscured by darkness or convenient set pieces, taking on an impossible form inspired by Peele’s love for Evangelion and eldritch horror. We cannot help but fall victim to the same desire the unfortunate victims of the creature’s appetite did: we stare, helplessly, in wonder and disbelief. The spectacle is absolutely worth it.
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