Editor’s note:This post contains spoilers for Nope.
Horse wrangler Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) sits slumped atop his steed, dying, impaled by a nickel inexplicably projected from the clouds. The offending coin bears the familiar phrase, “In God We Trust”—a message both prophetic and ironic in the world of Nope.
Writer-director Jordan Peele’s third feature film (after Get Out and Us) follows Otis’ adult children, Em (Keke Palmer) and Otis Jr., or “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya), who run their father’s struggling business, Haywood Hollywood Horses, in the wake of his death. The siblings set out to capture evidence of a UFO terrorizing the area around their ranch, consuming all life in its path, then violently spitting out whatever it can’t digest—including metal objects like the nickel that killed Otis Sr.
In many ways, Nope is a love letter to the filmmaking process; we’re told the Haywoods are descendants of the first man featured in a motion picture, another horse-rider. But as a work of sci-fi horror, Nope also serves as a warning, even opening with a title card displaying Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” More than a reference to the UFO’s regurgitation, the verse and the Book of Nahum overall suggest that we should be as concerned with the idolatry within our hearts as we are with the things that rain from above.
A brief, rather obscure Old Testament book, Nahum relays a prophetic vision of the fall of Assyria at the hands of the Babylonians. In Chapter 3, Nahum tells us that, while God is “slow to anger,” he “will not leave the guilty unpunished.” Here, the guilty are represented by the oppressive Assyrian empire, which had conquered the tribes of Israel. Nahum goes on to describe the Assyrian capital of Nineveh as a “city of blood, full of lies,” littered with “victims.” Assyria, we’re told “enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.”
Nahum 3:5, directed at Nineveh, reads: “‘I am against you,’” declares the Lord Almighty. ‘I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.’” This is followed by the promise of Nahum 3:6 seen at the top of the Nope. Ultimately, the Book of Nahum shows us that the path of idolatry and exploitation only leads toward death and destruction.
We see this happen in Nope with the Haywoods’ neighbor, former child actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun). A former child star on a (fictional) 1990s sitcom, Gordy’s Home, Jupe survived “six minutes and 13 seconds of havoc” when Gordy—a trained chimpanzee—brutally attacked a pair of cast members. As an adult, Jupe operates Jupiter’s Claim, a Western theme park and kitschy monument to his childhood fame. For an additional fee, guests can visit a secret room devoted to the Gordy incident. The exhibit makes a spectacle of that tragic day, complete with merch and memorabilia from the attack—including a shoe worn by one of the victims, still stained with a drop of her blood.
For the park’s latest attraction, The Star Lasso Experience, Jupe intends to summon the UFO and parade it before a live audience, using horses he purchased from the Haywoods as bait. During the show, the UFO devours the crowd instead: Jupe, his wife and kids, park guests and employees. At that moment, it’s fitting that Jupe has referred to the UFO—a white disc with a dark round center, resembling an eye—as “The Viewers.” It may also explain why the inner mouth of the UFO is made to approximate a camera aimed at its prey. Because in Nope, it’s the attraction that consumes the audience, not the other way around. And in his effort to make a spectacle of the UFO—at the expense of the horses, park guests, and everyone in the vicinity of Jupiter’s Claim—Jupe winds up making a spectacle of himself, even losing his life in the process.
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This isn’t to say that the UFO is a stand-in for God. In fact, OJ eventually realizes that it isn’t a spaceship at all, but a living creature. Perhaps this monster is a tool of divine retribution, representing a power beyond our understanding or control, despite the efforts of some to seize that control for themselves. As such, the attacks by the alien (and Gordy, for that matter) could be seen as acts of Old Testament justice against purveyors of exploitation, attempting to seduce the public.
Later in the film, after his own close encounter, OJ realizes the only way to avoid being eaten is to dodge direct “eye” contact with the alien. Jupe’s mistake, OJ explains, is that “he got caught up trying to train a predator,” inviting it in and giving it a means to feed. By averting his own gaze—in effect ignoring it—OJ takes away its reason to attack. The lesson here, perhaps, is that we don’t have to feed the monster, so to speak. We can, instead, choose compassion for others and resist the temptation to revel in their exploitation (let alone that of animals or natural resources). We can cease giving attention to those who gladly serve up trauma, conflict, anger, and fear; who trade on human dignity for a dollar, power, or simply for the attention; and who readily make a spectacle of our pain with no clear intention to heal it.
Consider the ubiquity of punditry posing as news, platforms designed to divide us, so-called entertainment that profits off the worst of human behavior; leaders who exploit our faith in exchange for political gain; and the conflation of fame and infamy in our parasocial culture. (In naming his protagonist “OJ,” Peele deliberately evokes the real-life media spectacle of O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial, which, like the Gordy incident, garnered morbid public intrigue that often overshadowed the victims of the crime.) Consider the influence of all the above and the power they’ve imbued through our rapt attention—in some cases, even our worship.
While this power may not match that of the Assyrian Empire, it nonetheless poses a threat to our society, spiritual health, and collective well-being, ultimately distracting us from being the type of people God wants us to be.