vulture asks

Is the Alien in Nope a Metaphor?

Photo: Universal Pictures

Jordan Peele’s films are known for packing layers of meaning into striking, often sneakily horrific images — think of the way Allison Williams eats her cereal in Get Out or the tethers’ linked hands in Us. With Nope, Peele introduces a new monster: a people-eating UFO haunting the skies above a remote horse ranch in Los Angeles County. But what does this image of a flying saucer mean? In the context of a film that touches on Hollywood erasure and our own addiction to spectacle, does it mean anything? For more insight, we asked Vulture staffers to take a cue from Ancient Aliens and proudly broadcast their pet conspiracy theories to the world.

The Alien Is Pollution

Yeah, sure, maybe Nope is one big cautionary tale about how this obsession with going viral is gonna be the death of us — that we’re too distracted by attention, that the real monster hunts from within, that Keke Palmer ain’t gonna save our asses again — or we can remove the tinfoil hats and consider the facts: This, folks, is a clear PSA about pollution. A scream to put down the plastic. (Congrats to Leonardo DiCaprio and Greta Thunberg. Bullying works.) You knew landfills were a threat to earthlings; now you also know that, per Jordan Peele’s tea leaves, all that polyester is gonna fuck up life beyond this dying planet, too. Trusted film critic Logan Paul found it perplexing that such an advanced extraterrestrial creature apparently couldn’t “tell the difference between a plastic inflatable and a viable meal” when it gobbled up its feast of flags and tube dancers then graduated to a whole-ass balloon boy. First, put some respect on Jean Jacket’s name. Second, she knew what she was doing; it’s just that plastic is, unfortunately, the superior bitch. (Note how Miz Jacket takes an immediate stance against light and noise pollution and electricity in general. Ecoconscious!) So, really, Peele’s message is the same: Humanity is self-destructing, and nothing’s more entertaining. — Dee Lockett

The Alien Is Hollywood

Okay, I’m not convinced the alien is meant to be a direct allegory for anything in Nope. Sometimes a saucer-shaped carnivorous alien is just a saucer-shaped carnivorous alien! But in the lives of the three most prominent characters, the alien definitely functions as a stand-in for the industry they’re all operating on the outskirts of. OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), Emerald (Keke Palmer), and Jupe (Steven Yeun) all encounter proof of extraterrestrial life, and the first instinct for each of them is how they could use it to vault themselves into (or back into) fame and fortune. OJ and Emerald are pragmatic, looking to lure the alien out in order to get footage of it before the media and the rest of the world cottons on to what’s happening out in Agua Dulce. But Jupe — poor Jupe, the survivor of a horrifying childhood incident turned Saturday Night Live punch line — tries to harness the UFO as part of his failing western theme park, willfully spinning out a narrative in which the flying object is the vehicle of benign visitors from space and naming them “the viewers,” as though they’re watching humanity like we’re a TV show. It’s exactly the kind of thinking you’d expect from someone who’d been churned up and spit out by Hollywood and who nevertheless only wants back in; like if you try hard enough, you can really turn Hollywood into something benevolent through sheer force of will instead of a gaping maw poised to devour you whole. — Alison Willmore

Forget the Alien, a Chimp Is Attacking That Girl

I lost all ability to parse Nope’s central metaphor when I realized that Jordan Peele had structured a key plot point around my second biggest fear of all time (SBFOAT): having my face spontaneously torn off by a chimp. (My FBFOAT is being trapped in an elevator alone for a long time with only my thoughts for company.) I have held tightly to this fear since February 2009, when Oprah interviewed Charla Nash, a Connecticut woman who innocently went to her friend’s house to help her wrangle her temperamental chimpanzee and left without her face. In the years since, whenever I have shared with others that this is my SBFOAT, I usually get a response along the lines of “Rachel, this will never happen to you. You don’t even know anyone who owns a chimp.” My response to that? “Not yet!!” One never knows when a friend with a chimp might enter their lives or when a rogue chimp might wander down the street and come calling for one’s face. All of this is to say it was extremely cathartic to see that Jordan Peele shares the very same SFBOAT, going so far as to weave in an entire Nope B-plot about Gordy the chimp going crazy on a ’90s TV set and tearing off his co-worker’s face. (I know it’s a second biggest fear and not a first for Peele because otherwise the whole movie would have been about the chimp and the woman without a face.) I want to thank Peele for what is ultimately an important PSA about not going anywhere the fuck near somebody’s chimp. — Rachel Handler

The Alien Is Our Narcissism

I have decided, after lengthy pondering and a slight confirmation of this theory by Nope cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, that the alien represents humanity’s narcissistic desire to see itself, and it distorts that desire by acting like a kind of mirror to lure in its prey. When people are looking up at the entity, early in the film, it looks like a saucer with an eye — with its “pupil” becoming the portal that sucks up people, horses, whatever and then belches inorganic material back out. By the end of the film, when OJ, Em, Antlers, Angel, and a TMZ photographer are trying to capture the alien on film, it adapts some of the qualities of an early camera, evoking a bellows, fabric drape cover, and camera flash in how it rhythmically ululates. It’s mirroring back to us what we’re using to record it as if tapping into the spectacle and creating an endless loop. The alien shows us whatever we show it because all we ever want to see is ourselves. — Roxana Hadadi

The Alien Is Filmmaking Itself

Nope is a movie about Hollywood erasure. The film’s monster may be a UFO, but it resembles a camera. And it functions as a symbol of the film and TV industry, where the gatekeepers are mostly white and the public’s understanding of culture and history can be shaped based on what’s in the frame as well as what’s left out.

What the ship is attempting to remove from the frame writ large is Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a ranch where horses are trained to appear on-camera and whose roots go all the way back to the very first moving image, which happened to be a Black cowboy riding a horse. That Black cowboy was the great-great-great-grandfather of Emerald and O.J. Haywood, the siblings now running the ranch who are trying to verify the spaceship’s existence via the only means that can provide proof: a camera. They are below-the-line workers raging against a Hollywood machine in the sky; filmmakers fighting a metaphorical camera with actual ones.

While the ship initially looks like it was yanked from the storyboards of a 1950s sci-fi thriller, it sucks people in through a mechanism that grows to resemble a long lens or viewfinder. Late in the film, the portal into the “ship” flutters open and shut, almost as if it’s taking pictures. During our brief glimpses of the ship ingesting spectators from Jupiter’s Claim — the neighboring western theme park run by an Asian American former child star, Ricky “Jupe” Park — its interior appears to contain gauzy materials evocative of curtains or spotlight diffusers. This creature is cushy and inflicts pain at the same time, the perfect metaphor for the movie biz.

It’s perfect, too, that what ultimately destroys this modern Hollywood monster is a Black woman (Emerald) using an old-timey flashbulb and a Black man (O.J.) on a horse who fully owns the final frame of Nope. The monster in this movie wants to delete the possibility of these images existing. But the young Haywoods, descendants of the first man captured in motion, won’t let that happen, not on their watch. — Jen Chaney

The Alien Is Our Brains, Asleep

The UFO-like animal in Nope is not a metaphor but a placeholder for how our mind processes and remembers things when we dream. It asks, “What actually terrifies us?” The film presents a threat, and its climax captures it in a picture. Still, the only image from the movie that haunted my REM was the chimpanzee Gordy, star of an in-movie ’90s sitcom called Gordy’s Home, attacking people. Are we really scared of aliens and the unknown? Or do we actually crave what we have little to no knowledge of? I think the monster is more of a tricky measure of fear. — Wolfgang Ruth

The Alien Is Our Futile Attempt to Make Meaning

Arguably Nope’s most important narrative thread is the chimpanzee attack at a taping of Gordy’s Home. A child actor on set during the carnage, Ricky “Jupe” Park turns that trauma into a nice little side hustle as an adult, selling access to gruesome souvenirs like the blood-splattered shoe that flew off his co-star as she got mauled. In Jupe’s memory (and his display), the shoe stands straight up, indicating to him that he’s taking part in a miracle — a “bad miracle” as Peele’s script puts it. He remembers connecting with Gordy after the attack, just before someone offscreen shoots the animal. Gordy, he thinks, singled him out as special.

It’s this sense of his own specialness that makes Jupe believe “the viewers” (the name he gives to the flying saucer) like him. It’s a very human reaction to the unfathomable. But Nope pushes back against the easy explanations that our brains crave. Jupe is wrong about the saucer: It isn’t an intelligent civilization watching him with approval — it’s an animal instinctively protecting its territory. Jupe pays for his attempt at meaning-making by being eaten alive. The monster isn’t a metaphor. It’s a wild animal, and it will kill you if you treat it like anything else. — Emily Heller

The Alien Is Just an Alien

I can’t help but put Nope in conversation, if not outright opposition, with the Irma Vep series. If one message of Nope is “Maybe getting the shot isn’t worth it,” Irma Vep counters with “Isn’t it, though?” The industry is currently still trying to figure out whether people on a film set are workers or artists, and also why those two things always seem to be in conflict. Nope argues that the “for the art” argument doesn’t really justify the suffering. What’s more, the art being died for is mid. A handful of people come to see Jupe’s sky lasso, with its hack music cues and child labor. And is Gordy’s Home worth a mauling or two?

To that point, I think the alien in Nope is just an alien. It’s just a really big guy and to treat it as a symbol rather than a living creature kind of plays into one of the big themes of the film. Treat animals like they matter, treat people like they matter, and don’t ruin your life for posterity. “Is cinema an art worth suffering for?” Irma Vep asks. “Nope,” says Nope. — Bethy Squires

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Is the Alien in Nope a Metaphor?