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Thinking About the Cultural Theme of Spectacle in Jordan Peele's 'Nope'

Jessica Johnson on

As the second week of the 2022 fall semester is rapidly winding up for my English composition classes, I decided to take in one last summer movie before my heavy essay grading begins: Jordan Peele's neo-Western sci-fi horror film "Nope."

If you're a fan of Peele's work, you know that his primary cinematic purpose isn't solely to entertain you. In fact, I would argue that his main objective is to make us think deeply about the trends of our cultural dynamics and how we are negatively manipulated by them. "Nope" has a similar theme to Peele's 2019 film "Us," which was a horror social commentary that showed how we are "tethered" to material possessions, wealth and social prestige by featuring depraved doppelgangers preying on their doubles who achieved this status. "Nope" tackles the cultural obsession with "spectacle" in our society and how it is fed through our fixation with technology, the impulse to take pictures of almost everything with our phones and the age-old craving for fame and fortune.

"Nope" begins with a paraphrased verse from Nahum 3:6 using the New King James Version, which reads, "I will cast abominable filth at you. Make you vile. And make you a spectacle." The true meaning of this verse, however, does not completely apply to our present-day understanding of cultural spectacle that "Nope" examines. In the King James version of this scripture, the term "gazingstock" is used, but the spectacle is referring to God's judgment for the sins and evil doings of the ancient Assyrians living in the capital of Nineveh. In "Nope," besides quoting Nahum, there is no meaningful reference to God by the characters in the plot. The premise of spectacle is based on how we can easily become victims -- in many cases fatal -- of our fascination with flamboyant pageantry. This enticing captivation is defined as idolatry from a biblical perspective, but Peele does not address this viewpoint in the film.

Peele's storyline for our preoccupation with spectacle in our culture is actually pretty basic, with just enough creepy doses of terror and suspense. "Nope" protagonists, OJ and Emerald Haywood, a horse-wrangling sibling duo portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, discover a menacing alien ship that hovers over the beautiful skyline of their father's (Keith David) Agua Dulce, California, ranch. After their father's mysterious death and other unnerving incidents, such as the electricity going out and their horses getting spooked at night, OJ and Emerald purchase expensive digital cameras with a determination to get a "money shot," which Emerald upgrades in terminology to an "Oprah shot," of the UFO. They figure the potential thousands of dollars they pocket will solve the financial crisis they are facing, but they did not know that Jupe Park (Steven Yeun), the town's western carnival showman, has a similar plan. Jupe has been buying horses from OJ to bait the alien into revealing itself at an afternoon show, a decision that has a deadly end for Jupe, his audience and his family. As the film progresses, we learn that the ship is an alien creature that viciously gobbles up people and horses, while spitting out metal objects it cannot digest. One of the most telling scenes as the story reaches its climax is when a TMZ reporter also tries to get the "Oprah shot" and does not heed Emerald's warnings. The creature later shifts its shape with a mouth that has the appearance of a flashing camera. That's the powerful metaphor Peele delivers, that our consumption of spectacle can devour us.

 

At the end of "Nope," I thought about another scripture that can be metaphorically applied as a warning against feeding our desires for phenomenal displays. In Song of Solomon 2:15, it is mentioned that "little foxes" spoil vines that have tender grapes. Little foxes can be compared to character faults that gnaw at our devout attributes, which are represented by the grapes, that God has given us such as love, kindness and compassion. Every time we feed the allure of spectacle our vines get weaker, and if we succumb to it, our good qualities become a portion for foxes. It would be interesting if a "Nope" sequel comes from this angle, but hopefully viewers thoughtfully pondered the significance of the message Peele gave us.

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Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate, Inc.
 

 

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