The alien invasion thriller Nope is likely to leave viewers walking out of the theater with their phones in hand, Googling movie explainers and looking for answers about what they just saw. Jordan Peele’s follow-up to Get Out and Us veers back and forth between taut horror, sci-fi action, and sprawling character study, and its widely varying pace and puzzle-box approach put a lot of pieces on the board that it expects viewers to assemble for themselves.
Some of those questions have answers, for viewers willing to put the pieces together and apply some inference and deductive reasoning. But others don’t, and that’s one of the movie’s most central and significant ideas. Peele goes out of his way to leave blanks that viewers will have to either fill in for themselves or just embrace as mysteries, and accepting the unknown as unknown may be a better approach to Nope than trying to crack it like it’s an enemy cipher.
[Ed. note: Significant spoilers ahead for Nope.]
How are the Gordy scenes relevant to the alien plot?
Initially, it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear connection between a chimpanzee unexpectedly attacking the cast of a TV show and an alien preying on a horse ranch. Both involve bloody, uncontrolled horror. But one is an animal acting out in fear. It’s unclear whether Gordy even kills anyone in the process, since we later see one of his victims alive, though horribly scarred by the experience. (Given that Saturday Night Live felt free to turn the event into comedy, it’s doubtful anyone died.) The other is a ruthless predator, efficiently slaughtering dozens of people and animals over at least a six-month period.
It feels like there’s a sliver of connection when OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) avoids getting eaten by the alien in much the same way Ricky “Jupe” Park (Jacob Kim as a kid, Steven Yeun as an adult) avoids being mauled by Gordy in childhood. Both of them learn that wild creatures react unpredictably to behavior they consider aggressive, from the exploding balloons and screaming that set Gordy off to the direct eye contact that the alien seems to take as a challenge. (Why something without eyes gets agitated over eye contact is a different unexplained question. How does an alien even know what human eyes or the human gaze mean?)
But the larger connection there is more about cause and effect: Jupe evades death or grievous injury as a child, but while he doesn’t show it, the experience clearly leaves him marked. His casual dismissal of the event, his calm appreciation of the SNL skit, his morbid collection of memorabilia from the show (including a blood-spattered shoe from his mauled co-worker) — they all show how Jupe has tried to control and tame the event in his mind, the same way he tries to control and tame the alien.
But Peele leaves questions around the edges, room for the audience to interpret who Jupe really is according to their own preferences. Did escaping death make him feel reckless and certain of his own immortality, to the point where he’s willing to bait a gigantic predator because he thinks there won’t be any consequences? Or did it leave him queasily fascinated with lethal creatures, and drawn to the alien because it makes him feel more alive to tempt fate? Or is he compelled to try to control the alien because he’s frightened of it, the same way he’s turned his childhood trauma into calm patter and a sideshow exhibit? Yeun and the film don’t fully show their hands on Jupe’s motives, though there might be some clues in the wonderstruck way he looks up at the alien, with awe rather than fear or determination.
Why does the alien behave the way it does?
Peele certainly leaves plenty of questions open about the alien itself. Among so many other things, there’s the question of how it got to Earth and whether there are more of them — questions Peele avoids by keeping the movie’s focus small and tight in one rural area. But also, why does the alien feel free to unfold at the end into a kind of giant jellyfish shape after being a sleek manta ray-type creature for the whole film? What’s going on when it unfurls those green streamers from its mouth? Why does it hesitate to eat the protagonists at the end after spending the whole movie gobbling up anything in sight?
It’s possible to guess at the answers, mostly from comparing the alien’s behavior to animal behavior — for instance, when it hovers over the ranch house and rains blood on it, when previously we’ve only seen it excrete metallic detritus like keys and coins. For many predatory animals, liberally pissing all over their territory is a way of staking their claim and warning other predators away. And by the time the blood-rain sequence rolls around, it does seem like it feels threatened, particularly by the trick with the fake horse. (Plus, anyone who has owned cats is probably familiar with “revenge peeing,” which veterinarians more tactfully call “stress marking their comfort items.”)
It’s unclear whether the alien is intelligent enough to make a vindictive or calculated choice to “pee” all over the protagonist’s home, but it is clear that its behavior changes when its environment keeps changing. The sequences where Antlers (Michael Wincott) watches videos of predatory animals fighting and killing feel like they’re meant to remind us that the alien is just a bigger form of predator, and in some ways, it behaves similarly, whether it’s stalking its prey from camouflage or jealously claiming a territory where food seems plentiful.
That animal behavior might also explain its slow responses and unnerving transformation at the end of the movie. The way it unfolds into a larger shape for the first time in the film’s climax could be seen as a threat display. So could the way it flashes a previously hidden colorful part of its body at its potential prey — it may be trying to get an unknown adversary to back down and leave it alone, or test its opponent for defenses. The green streamers could be a sensory apparatus it didn’t activate earlier in the film when it was only going after horses and humans, prey that had already become familiar.
But no matter how many comparisons we make to the biological world we know, there are aspects of the alien’s behavior that we aren’t meant to fully understand. The point of just about any story involving aliens is that they represent the unknown and the unknowable, the things that scare humanity most. Once an adversary is fully known, it’s much less frightening. The alien’s sheer alienness is meant to be baffling and creepy. Everything the audience doesn’t know about it and its reasoning is a feature in this horror story, not a bug.
Why does Antlers feed himself to the alien?
With OJ’s taciturnity and Jupe’s tactic of concealing his trauma behind an easy smile and a practiced narrative, Peele is in part telling a story about how humans are alien and unknowable to each other, too. But Nope spends more time with both those men, giving us more data to factor into any interpretations of their personality. Antlers the cinematographer is a much bigger mystery, because he’s a much smaller part of the movie. He gives us plenty of hints about what he values: He’s notably bored with the idea of the project Emerald (Keke Palmer) tries to lure him into, at least until she tells him they need to do the impossible. He tells her that the fame she’s hungering after is a nightmare he can’t wake up from. His behavior reveals him as a jaded man who’s long past caring about a career that’s become boring to him.
He sums up his own dismissiveness for the world in a cryptic line to Angel (Brandon Perea), about how “they don’t deserve the impossible.” He’s referencing the “impossible shot” Emerald asked him to get, but it isn’t clear who “they” are. He seems to be talking about the entire world. He’s saying that he does care about getting the perfect image of the alien on film, but he doesn’t think it’s worth sharing with the world. When he runs to meet the alien’s devouring mouth, he doesn’t care if his camera survives. (Good thing, too, since it seems like it comes out smashed, with the film canisters crushed and exposed or rolling away into the desert.) He wants to get the impossible shot, but it’s for himself and himself only.
The mystery Peele leaves here is, why? How did Antlers become such a cynical artiste that he’s willing to die in an act of art he’ll never share with anyone else? It’s a rich, delicious question with no obvious answer, left open for the audience to fill in with any catastrophe they want, any romantic tale of idealism betrayed or artistry denied.
And so many other questions
There are other unanswered questions stretching throughout Nope. Why is a shoe on the set of Jupe’s sitcom balanced improbably on its heel? Did the sitcom’s dad-actor survive? What’s going on in OJ’s head, given what a quiet and internal man he is? Peele doesn’t outright answer these questions, or a lot of other tiny mysteries he threads throughout the movie. And that’s entirely intentional, like the ambiguity of Inception’s final shot, the end of John Sayles’ Limbo, or so many other movies that don’t fully answer the audience’s questions.
In the era of “End of movie explained” recaps, that ambiguity can feel defiant. It sometimes feels like the Reddit Detectives of the world are outright offended by mysteries and enigmas, or symbolism left up to individual viewers to decode. But Nope is packed with enigmas. It centers on an alien, but its human characters are sometimes just as alien to each other. Emerald clearly doesn’t understand why her brother is so beholden to a rustic, financially struggling farm. Angel doesn’t understand what Antlers really cares about. Jupe’s straggling, doomed audience doesn’t understand that the show he’s putting on for them is the external form of an internal struggle he’s been waging since he was a kid.
The unexplained and inexplicable — like that shoe, balanced perfectly in an unlikely, memorable way — is one of Nope’s biggest themes. The movie opens with a mystery: Gordy, bloody and mystified on a nearly abandoned TV set, with a significance not yet clear to the audience. It moves from there to another mystery: tiny everyday objects raining out of a clear blue sky. It’s a movie about mysteries, from the seemingly supernatural to the utterly mundane question of why, when those objects fall, they strike one man dead while leaving another unharmed.
If you’re looking for the heart of Nope, you won’t find it in pinning down exact, specific answers about what everything means or why everything happens. You’ll find it in the idea that sometimes people don’t know other people’s minds or secrets. Sometimes they don’t know why two people can stand in the same place at the same time and end up with remarkably different fates. And they certainly don’t know everything about the universe we live in, or what we might be sharing it with. Those unanswered questions are part of what makes Nope beautiful… and a lot of what makes it terrifying.