Nope ★★½

Nope carves out its spiritual-mythical objective right from its first Christian prophetic verse from Nahum. I recognize the prophet, not because I spent the majority of my restless youth in Catholic schools, but because one of my closest friends was named after that prophet, a young Ethiopian-Canadian kid named Nahoum. He often reminded me of the connection. Nope, too, reminds us of its connection to religious territory, whether the nouveau post-modern secular audiences like it or not. 

Peele's opening is literally a father dying. The Abrahamic scriptures need not be compared. Old Testament stories love fathers dying, only so their kids can resurrect them. It's the backbone of much religious text. So Nope seems promising in exploring the spiritual quest of "rescuing the dead father" from the belly of the beast, or in this case: aliens. The siblings, a kind of Cain and Abel; one sullen introvert and one outgoing extrovert, decide to wreak vengeance on the cloud monster (aka GOD everyone!). Except the cloud monster also seems to be a metaphor for the "spectacle of cinema", or the "impossible moment" or "paternal trauma," or "cultural homogeneity" and its amorphous nature kind of embodies Peele's story: it twists, until it becomes static, then fissures, then numbs, until you just wanna see it explode real good.

This is the kernel of failure that is impossible to contend with in Nope. Peele has a mosaic of references, allegories, motifs that never feel tightly fastened to any one idea. Therefore, all of the ideas feel shapeless and become more incredulous with each passing minute. These two siblings have to get a shot of the alien. This is what the film stakes its premise on. OK, then make that film. Sure, it's low stakes. But look, Twister did that idea magnificently well. Same idea; "weird shit in the sky, we gotta photograph it." But that seems like a lesser stake in comparison to resurrecting their dead father. Which it also tries to do! But it never sets the stakes for either of those emotional arcs, I feel neither the joy of their pursuit of photography, nor their vengeful romp.

Peele doesn't elaborate on OJ and Emerald's downtrodden turn enough to establish the necessity of capitalizing on the Aliens. Instead, he spends time with its supporting character, Ricky (Steven Yeun) and his own childhood trauma on a television sitcom in the late 90s. That storyline doesn't exactly shape its trauma in a convincible form either, and beggars disbelief to an uncomfortable degree.

It especially becomes difficult to swallow when the story relies so damn heavily on Deus Ex Machina. Oh, the only guy at Fry's also happens to be the archetype Alien nerd? Damn, these two must've done won the lottery. OK, and if you're going to go into that direction, carve out that character. Give me something to latch onto. Make him not half-baked or give him idiosyncrasies that make us laugh or have him come up with his own weird theories about the alien. In my circle of alien theorists, that guy is pure norm core. You're telling me he's willing to put his life in danger for a cloud? Dude watches Ancient Aliens, it's not like he's reading Alien Agenda by Jim Marrs (which he should be!).

Another character who feels out of another film completely is the commercial cinematographer/surrogate Quint in Jaws (Michael Wincott) who happens to be down to photograph this alien at the drop of a dime. Look, I know cinematographers (DP). I respect their craft, but if I asked a commercial DP, who makes bank, to drop their schedule for an alien romp and then shoot it in IMAX, that cat wouldn't be returning my calls. At one point, he exclaims how he specially built a mechanical camera to capture celluloid (welcome to the Bolex, circa 1925). Simply implausible character and story beat. But the fact that the Fry guy knows how to load 65mm film cans was just...I tapped out. lol it was the funniest part of the film for me.

"But get it? It's a self-reflective meta-construction of the film itself, with Jordan Peele as the surrogate to the siblings who enlist the help of Hoytema Van Hoytema??"

Look, you lost me dawg. I'm done with the meta-fiction. It's too clever for uncle Mark. It's all too wry and offers nothing to the emotional arc of the story. You wanna open up Nope with some Muybridge, that's fine. You wanna get navel-gazey into the history of animal/people exploitation of cinema, all right. But when you have a shot of the cinematographer mulling over some Jacques Cousteau footage in his home studio lost the plot. It's too self-involved. Too detached.

And the thing is Nope has a promising start of not being a detached spectacle film. Its cast totally tries to pull the trolley in the opposite direction. But the story is tackling a heap of themes that it can't congeal with effectiveness. Not unlike Todd Phillip's Joker.

Let me try to break down Nope's subtext:

1. The history of animal abuse which cinema is built on is not unlike the history of racism which purposely erases/objectifies, intentionally, out of a desire to dominate.

2. For almost all of its history, Western cinema and its spectacles erased and omitted Black artists of the boomer generation (as dramatized by OJ and Emerald's father's death). Thus his next generation is trying to annihilate the Blockbuster ("God" "Alien") to avenge said death.

3. The Blockbuster is a transmogrifying and amorphous entity that demands we "watch it" in order for us to feel its wrath. If we don't look at it, we don't suffer.

4. But we can't help but want to invite spectacle in our lives, therefore it is our natural instinct to want to capture it. Nature/God/Animal/Aliens are subject to human's desire to behold.

5. But choosing who beholds it will determine its ultimate fate. If you are "moral" (OJ/Emerald), you are permitted. If you are trying to capitalize (Steven Yeun), you are not permitted in said "ownership."

6. Ownership of God, Earth or Animals is a fool's errand, and therefore, a kind of asymmetric relationship to said spectacle/God emerges.

7. That asymmetry becomes most clear in how, historically, White people (mis)treat other races and how most people (mis)treat animals.

8. Mistreatment is a bedrock to cinema and, thus, has transformed both in its form/function. The "spectacle" of a horse has now transformed into the "spectacle" of Aliens/Ghosts/Marvel.

9. With the transformation of the natural spectacle into the supernatural, the medium reflects said transformation in its tools. From the mechanical engineering and chemical process of photography to the digital revolution.

10. Therefore, Peele casts two "cinematographers" (one White and one non-White) to capture the entity using both a 4K Digital camera and the IMAX camera. Both reflect the evolutionary progress, technically and politically, while ultimately attempting to achieve the same thing: capturing the impossible.

11. The crossover from film to digital was in parallel with the growing prominence of non-White actors in "spectacles" (See: Independence Day). Therefore, OJ wearing the Scorpion King hoody is an obvious nod to the point in time when cinema turned from 35mm to digital (2002) and when The Rock helmed a major spectacle blockbuster.

(side note: It was also highly criticized for its terrible infusion of digital effects in its otherwise 35mm format.)

OK, but the narrative suffers because of the above, it is not elevated by it. It produces a clunky "show your work" student-like neophyte approach which begs you to see how much thought is going into the engine, rather than letting the engine take us to where we want to go. It never braces for impact because it sluggishly leaps from two stories that are, yes tethered by trauma, but not rooted in stakes or drama. You're telling me this cowboy is charging $50k for a weekend at his 90s sitcom theme park? In what world? I wouldn't pay $50 to sleep in the Restaurant from Seinfeld. The worlds just aren't built. They are symbols.

In the case of Jupiter's Claim, it is a rugged symbol of the "theme park film" which Scorsese preaches against in the face of cinema. The intersection of capitalism, spectacle and exploitation is made as a geography, but not as a believable convention. Is that the point? If it is, then is it looking down the nose at it? If so, why even bother producing a character worth committing that much screen time to? Unless, as I suspect, it is in service to an idea, rather than the emotional path of the story.

But the TMZ biker scene is probably the best metaphor of Peele getting lost in meaning, rather than drama. The TMZ dude is merely a symbolic plot device that literally and figuratively mirrors the VFX chrome ball in the first scene, so as to suggest (get it?) the parallel between the horse and OJ. But instead of creating a gripping and tense scene, it plays out in a wide shot with a predictable payoff that feels like it may ring cathartic for celebrities who are tired of paparazzi, but for us plebs, lacked punch.

Stuff like this looks cool but has little to do with the story itself. The first act just never gets its bearing. Partly because Peele sacrifices character development and pathos for the sake of themes and tone. The tone he strikes quite well, but at a considerable cost. His priorities become confused by the end of the first act as it’s too busy building a few worlds to ever convincingly build one. The disconnectedness of the monkey sitcom and the ranch is the biggest long jump for me.

Spoilers let me get this're shooting a sitcom in '98 with a monkey who's part of a family (a direct tip of the hat to the alien sitcom ALF) and the wrangler on this set doesn't have a locked and loaded set of tranquilizers on standby for when this chimp goes bananas? Come on, dawg. You can't be serious. That monkey would've been banana cream pie as soon as it lunged towards talent. I've worked with enough animal wranglers to know that bad boy would be put down like rolling blinders on a weekend hangover. But then, this monkey has an E.T. moment before he gets murdered? As an animal lover, I'd say that's bad taste, but it just feels like a desperate move to infuse some horror/cultural commentary as there's so few thrills elsewhere. It’s traumatic for the sake of traumatic. Ricky’s experience could be a story onto itself but here it’s half-baked and shoehorned, so much so that I was rooting for the monkey to kill lil Rick.

Peele is obsessed with inverting the Spielberg model (which I'm all for), that it distracts, rather than propels the story. In fact, all of the cultural baggage that this film surfaces on, I find, highly distracting. From the cornucopia of animal references (Jesus Lizard, the heart-eyed Wolf graphic tee, the Coyotes jersey, the Scorpion King hoody, the Cousteau film, etc etc) to the films-as-text (Jodie Foster needle drop anyone? get it? because she was in CONTACT), it uses cultural iconography as crutches to its ideas, of which there are many. Too many. There just seems to be a lack of focus (Pisces directors do that though).

Now, back to the Monkey Scene. Does the scene work horror-wise? Damn straight. That's the thing. Peele understands the function of horror. He does it well. He can pull the levers and push the buttons that make us scared. But he almost refuses to do so, from fear of giving into convention. So he gets wrapped up in the other stuff that feels forced, but more importantly, detracts from the central characters and the emotion of the work. I found this to be the least scary of his bouts and the least funny. It never goes into either extreme quite enough. It's rather placid and the structure reflects that. It's a low-hum of a film that goes white-knuckle about an hour late. And even then...shall we address the alien in the room?

Peele purposely evades any investigation into this thing. It truly is a mystery, which I dug. But goddamn, this alien looked cheese to me. Was it Signs bad? No. But it ain't H.R. Giger, I can tell ya that..let's just say, it looked like a ribbon kite jellyfish. Again, he's playing against the form and trying to make the Alien look beautiful rather than terrifying. But its finale suffers from that. As does the whole showdown. I didn't think they wanted to murder this ET, I thought they were just gonna snap some pics of it. But just as I suspected, this, too, is anti-alien propaganda man!

Nah, but there's definitely some entertaining bits in this. I just think Peele is suffering with what another exile from television, Adam McKay, suffers from: a bad case of Seriousitis; an adjective I use to describe artists who want to be taken seriously and do so by reaching for high-art, sacrificing their impeccable talent for characters/emotion in doing so. A great artist suffuses their research and dialectics with ideas so deeply into their art, it's rendered nearly-invisible. I'm not saying Peele isn't capable of that. But in contrast with Emerald and OJ's need to capture and show the impossible, I kinda wish Peele would try a bit harder to conceal it all.

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