“What’s a Bad Miracle?”: Nope (2022) and Mirrored Spectacle

Spoilers Ahead!

The playground at my elementary school came with one rule: ‘If you can’t see me, I can’t see you’. The afterschool care instructor used to shout it to us as we ran off into the trees, and she’d repeat it angrily if we wandered too far. I found it comforting, especially in tense games of capture the flag, when I would hide in a large shrub by the front office. It wasn’t a very good hiding spot, but I couldn’t see anyone, and so I figured, they couldn’t see me either. You’re not supposed to hide in capture the flag, it sort of defeats the whole ‘capture’ part of the game. I just didn’t enjoy playing, I found the pressure to much, to the extent where if I heard voices approaching, I would just give up and jump out of the shrub, scaring everyone with my possum instincts. I figured they were going to see me eventually; it was easier to just get it over with on my own terms. This schoolyard rule eventually followed me home, and so whenever I was scared, of whatever phobia of the day, I would close my eyes, and repeat, ‘If I can’t see it, it can’t see me’. It surprisingly worked, and sometimes still does, it’s a quiet assurance that refusing to see something maintains its distance. Everything from shapes in the dark, brought on by my own near-sighted eyes, to gory scenes in horror films.

I am not talking about ignorance, or even naivety, because you can’t turn away from certain issues, events, politics. No, I am talking about spectacles, things that don’t necessarily make sense, but are so intense that they elicit this strong fight or flight response. Take hiding in a shrub, what was I afraid of? It doesn’t make any sense now because it was all just a game, but neither does this playground motto. I can still see you even if you can’t see me, yet the motto isn’t just tricking kids into staying close. It teaches them that if someone can’t see you, they aren’t close enough to catch you, should you fall or need help. I took the inverse to be true, as though closing my eyes created physical distance, rather than physical distance being the reason I couldn’t see, and that incidentally taught me about spectacles.

“Right here, you are going to witness an absolute spectacle.”

Inversing this playground motto mirrors the way we process spectacles, and a good way of picturing that is through the War Boys featured in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Whenever someone is about to sacrifice themselves, the War Boys scream, “Witness Me”, and all turn to watch the death. The implication is that death doesn’t mean anything unless it’s witnessed, and that the act of seeing gives meaning, which implies, that looking away also carries meaning. You could alternatively think about it using the very word ‘spectacles’, which is the same name we give a pair of glasses, or a pair of spectacles, as through them we see what our eyes cannot normally perceive. You can stay blind and refuse spectacles, or you can use them to see everything, as things become clearer but also closer, now that they’re fully defined. There is a horror to both options, one which Jordan Peele’s newest film, Nope (2022), fully realizes.  

Nope focuses on a simple question: do you look at a spectacle, or do you look away? OJ realizes that he is safe from the alien so long as he doesn’t look it, because the alien is territorial and won’t see him as a threat if he isn’t staring at it. That got me thinking about this inversed playground rule, the ‘if I can’t see it, it can’t see me’, because OJ realizes that sight brings you closer to something, maybe not literally, but behaviourally. It’s as though looking at something means you are touching it with your eyeballs, in fact, many old religions and stories relate sight with disease and infection. Peele’s film highlights this stance by opening with this quote from the bible, “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” The implication there is that by looking at filth, looking at a spectacle, you become one yourself as it infects you. Gothic and Lovecraft works argue something similar, as they describe that seeing something can drive you mad, because you put yourself in relation simply by looking at it, and so you come away with some of that horror. Modern filmmakers rely on this perspective as well, directors like John Waters, who states that his films are filthy, but so are the viewers for daring to watch.

Characters in Nope learn about infectious spectacles the hard way, as other than OJ, each try to impose meaning onto the alien by looking at it, arguing that they are in some way comparable. Their attempts to recognize the alien using a human lens doesn’t work, as yes, it brings them closer to the alien, but that has disastrous results. The film’s alien is a giant eyeball that feeds on anything that looks back at it, and so it’s a spectacle (something you feel compelled to look at), but also an ongoing commentary on spectacles (because you shouldn’t look at it). I will say, the film acknowledges the contradiction here, because it too is a spectacle but still wants people to watch it. I will also acknowledge my contradiction, because I started this article by describing my background and ascribing it to Nope, the very thing the characters are doing to the alien. But at least the film, and I hope myself, are aware of that contradiction, just as OJ is. He chooses not to look, as he would with a territorial horse, but that doesn’t mean he is ignorant of what is going on. Even his name is a version of spectacle, as multiple characters uncomfortably reference OJ Simpson, and the heavily publicized trial, when introduced to OJ. He is aware of what looking and not looking does and behaves accordingly.

“Don’t Look Him in the Eye.”

Trauma in Nope stems from sight, things characters saw, things they didn’t, and what they wish they had done in light of that. We are introduced to this in the film’s first moments, when we open on a desecrated tv set. The camera is lowered, peaking out from a gauzed tablecloth and staring at a sofa and chair, a broken lamp, and an empty studio audience. We see a chimpanzee, smeared with blood in a yellow shirt and birthday hat, as he begins wandering the shot, nearing a woman’s body on the floor. He suddenly looks at the camera, right at the viewer, in one of the most chilling moments of the film. We can see him, and now he can see us. Nope returns to this scene later where we learn more about the Gordy incident, Gordy being the chimp, who was featured in a successful tv sitcom about a family who adopts a chimp and raises it as a family member. Gordy attacked and killed several people while filming a birthday episode, after a balloon unexpectedly popped, foreshadowing the later Jupiter Rising balloon that defeats the alien. But before we learn this context, we just have audio to go off of, the moments before the incident took place. We don’t see these moments, not even the initial attack, we just see the aftermath, and notably, in the background, we see a single shoe, balancing on its heel, facing up.

The shoe reappears, still suspended, in the museum Ricky has in his secret room dedicated to this horrific event, even though he doesn’t describe it as horrific. We learn that this early shot, underneath a table, is from Ricky’s POV, as he played one of the kids on the show, possibly the only person who wasn’t injured or killed by Gordy. He listened as Gordy slaughtered his co-stars, watched as he attacked and then devoured Mary Jo’s face, but Ricky doesn’t see these moments directly. They happen just outside his vantage, and that’s what saved him at the time. When Gordy notices and slowly approaches Ricky, he is slightly concealed by the tablecloth, and so, Ricky can’t make direct eye contact because there is this barrier, however flimsy, between them.

The Gordy incident is a spectacle, it’s a sublime or horrific thing that both disgusts and captivates. People were obsessed with it, for a time, they joked about it on Saturday Night Live, wanted to learn more, even see the footage, and that includes Ricky, who didn’t see the encounter directly, and thus didn’t know what to make of it. He set up this whole museum so people could learn more and listen to him, extend that spectacle, but when people lost interest, Ricky buried it inside his newest attraction. He keeps the suspended shoe in a glass box, which means he had to find the shoe, own it, and then re-suspend it, all to re-create this ominous thing he saw as a child. Ricky has always been waiting for the suspended shoe to drop, the shoe that didn’t get thrown around like its pair did, still on the woman’s body. Yet, he made sure it never dropped by putting inside this glass box, suspended forever. It becomes a clever metaphor for Ricky’s character, as he has built a career out of spectacles, but also can’t recover from this initial trauma because there has never been any resolution, as this other suspended shoe will never drop. He approaches the alien in same way, as he doesn’t understand what is happening, doesn’t perceive its risks, and so he just markets it, because that is what he has always done with the Gordy incident. Eventually, he and his family, all the people who have come to see the new spectacle at his amusement park, stand like the shoe, looking up before realizing how damaging that gaze can be.

Ricky describes the Gordy’s Home incident as an interesting tragedy, not something horrific, something to learn from, to analyze in a museum. It’s noteworthy that this room is a museum instead of a memorial, noteworthy too that Ricky isn’t some spokesperson for animal safety, instead, he is still working with spectacles, trying to recreate the popularity of this incident. Mary Jo does this too, as we learn that she is in the audience, dressed in a veil that covers her exposed teeth, and wearing a shirt with an adolescent picture of herself, a before image so people will recognize and treat her like a celebrity. Ricky might not be visibly scarred like Mary Jo is, but the horror is still inside him. It’s been pointed out repeatedly online that Ricky’s version of the alien, the merchandise he sells, looks like Gordy, and so when OJ gets terrorized in the barn by Ricky’s children, they look more like chimps than little green men. Ricky never recovered from the Gordy incident, and continues to contextualize his life using this trauma, seeing the alien as a version of Gordy, something he has experience with, even mastery over because he survived. One of the posters for Nope highlights this, as Ricky is shown wearing his white cowboy hat while looking up, and so the white circle resembles the alien, foreshadowing that he will be eaten, but also that this spectacle surrounds him throughout the film, making it the most prominent characteristic about him. He was already a goner before the film even started, it was just a matter of time.

“We Don’t Deserve the Impossible”

Jordan Peele’s company is called Monkeypaw Productions, apparently named after a famous short horror story from 1902 called “The Monkey’s Paw”, written by W.W. Jacobs. The story concerns greed, guilt, and fear, or what happens when you try to become more than human. It features a mummified monkey paw that supposedly grants you three wishes, but each comes with a horrific price as punishment for using the paw and trying to play God. The man in the story wishes for £200 and gets it in insurance money after his son brutally dies while working in a factory. It ends after the man and his wife try to resurrect their son, but while the woman is trying to open the door to let their son in, the terrified husband casts his third wish to ensure that no one is there. Nope is the first of Peele’s films to include a monkey, and more specifically, to focus on a monkey’s paw, as Gordy and Ricky are about to fist bump just as Gordy is shot in the face. Like the story, Gordy grants everyone’s wish, but with a price. The TV show was initially popular because of him, and even when it was cancelled, the publicity his attack got made the surviving cast famous, more famous than they had ever been. Ricky launched his career off it, and that made him think that he had survived the incident for a reason, that he was spared rather than conveniently placed. But notably, Ricky doesn’t touch the monkey’s paw, he doesn’t get the chance, and facing this unresolved moment, he convinces himself that their hands did meet, at least symbolically, making this a touching moment between man and animal. Ricky also believes that he calmed and distracted the monkey so it could be shot, making him a hero. He wishes this were the case, but like the monkey paw in the story, this wish, this need to add meaning onto something he can’t understand, comes with a price. Inventing this revisionist history means that Ricky is totally unprepared for the alien, assuming that, like Gordy, he can tame this being too.

“Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin the game.”

“The Monkey Paw” story incidentally mirrors the conversation Eadweard Muybridge’s work incited in the late 19th century. Muybridge plays an interesting role in Nope, as Emerald explains that she and her brother are the descendants of the nameless black jockey (named Alistair E. Haywood in Nope) featured in Muybridge’s famous ‘The Horse in Motion’ sequence, the one every film student learns about. Her point, and arguably the film’s, is that we should know this man’s name, not just the man who took the photo, but the person in it, one who plays just as important a role for cinema. Although the objective of Muybridge’s photo series was to study movement, to see if a horse is ever fully suspended while running, by studying just that, and the photographer, we neglect a huge part of the photo. Film history only examined part of it, and so they didn’t see the entire picture, again relating to the film’s discussion on sight, and what we are willing to see versus not.

The horse rider sequence is introduced in the film’s trailer, and I mentioned this in a post from July on early filmmaker George Méliès, and the ‘use’ of cinema. I guessed that this reference was intended to illustrate the need for a camera, to study versus to entertain, and the overlap between those, possibly even relating to aliens and humans studying or measuring one another. I wasn’t completely off, because Nope focuses on sight, and the clearest example of that is its clever twist on alien cinema, as people and horses aren’t being abducted, they are being eaten. The assumption that aliens would want to study us, like Muybridge studied the horse, implies that we are important enough to be studied, which is not the case in Nope. That revelation is one of the most frightening elements of the film, and I honestly can’t stop thinking about the moment where we see inside the alien for this reveal. We move inside the alien as Ricky and everyone from the show is slowly devoured and crushed, including children, screaming for mercy as the alien floats away. It is indifferent to its victims, but as we go on to learn, so are other humans.

To introduce Nope using Muybridge suggests that it’s complicating the politics and legacy of Muybridge’s work while also returning to the reason for Muybridge’s practice. The horse rider was just one of hundreds of studies Muybridge did, and they were never meant to be entertainment, I am not even sure Muybridge would be comfortable with the label ‘filmmaker’, given its modern context. He was a photographer, a scientist, an egomaniac, a murderer, but not a movie maker. His work was understandably controversial, as some argued that the only being who should be capable of slowing down life, to see if a horse is ever fully suspended, is God, and so photography and Muybridge’s invention, the Zoopraxiscope, were blasphemous. He was fixated with measuring life, rationalizing movement, and often simple movement like what the body looks like when you lean down to pick up a bucket of water. We see remnants of Muybridge in Nope, largely in three forms, and that suggests that the film isn’t just talking about Muybridge, but the way his sometimes-aggressive perspective continues today in modern filmmaking.

“Maybe you’re in a UFO hotspot.”

The first example of Muybridge is the director OJ and Emerald bring on to ‘capture’ the alien, and even that wording shows the underlying issue behind their plan. Like Ricky, neither OJ nor Emerald really know what to do with the alien, they just want visual proof, mainly for attention and money. They haven’t thought much further than that, no one even suggests calling officials or trying to defeat the alien. Their version of capturing doesn’t mean stopping the alien, which becomes increasingly strange in the film’s later half, once they discover the alien is eating people. Knowing this, they still decide to film it, endangering themselves and possibly others, should the plan not work. Angel even quietly suggests this, as he notes that the photo is going to help people, and no one in the group really reacts, they just sort of reply, “yeah…”, and look uncomfortable. The photo is more important than they are, except they keep lumping themselves with the photo, talking about what it will bring them versus show.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this intention is the TMZ reporter, who is severely injured but still begging someone to film his death. OJ tries to help, but he eventually abandons the reporter to save himself, something the others have been telling him to do over the radio. The group gave up on the reporter the moment he arrived, the director even moves the camera to capture the moment he is flung off his bike and towards the alien. The TMZ reporter represents the second Muybridge form, just his sheer determination to get the alien on camera, even if someone is filming instead of saving him. Not for science, for fame. His helmet harkens back to the mirrored ball that triggers Lucky the horse, representing an eye, but notably, because it’s a mirror, it just reflects the alien’s eye. It doesn’t matter if the reporter is looking up, because his helmet is this giant eye, leaving him completely anonymous, as though he is already willing to sacrifice himself for whatever is in front of him, like he is not a person, just a reflection.

We see a similar desperation in the eclectic cinematographer/director, Antlers, who in a strange turn, decides to kill himself, and endanger everyone, by bringing the alien back once they have it on film. He even takes the footage with him, filming as he is being eaten but not dropping the footage so anyone else can see. I am honestly still considering this moment, as I knew that something was going to happen when he pulled out the medication, but I initially assumed he was going to try to kill the alien by poisoning himself, and then poisoning the alien by extension once eaten. I think the medication was actually so he wouldn’t feel as much pain when attacked, or maybe he hadn’t considered killing himself beforehand, and he was just too high, hence his strange dialogue right before he runs away.

Regardless, the alien is already leaving when Antlers decides to draw it back, and when it does come back, it almost kills everyone. To me, Antlers is Muybridge, both are these selfish directors who are so obsessed with capturing life, regardless of the cost, even though Antlers takes a slightly different turn in the conversation. Whereas Muybridge moved forward with his blasphemous imagery, Antlers decides that no one should be able to see this footage, and so he keeps it to himself. Much like Ricky, who spends his life trying to contextualize childhood trauma and spectacle, Antlers needs to know what happens next, and wants to possess that knowledge. We see this earlier when Antlers is at home, working on a nature documentary, a scene where a snake and panther (I believe, I can’t find an image of it now) are fighting. The camera cuts away before we see the resolution of this fight, leaving the audience to wonder, who would win? The venomous snake (with its quick fury but slow poison) or the large panther (sharp claws but enveloped by the snake)? Only Antlers gets to see, and so this moment foreshadows his later desire to own footage by destroying it, so he is the only one who saw.

“Undeniable proof of aliens on camera. The Oprah shot.”

Perhaps the greatest reference, and our third, to Muybridge’s work is the film’s ongoing discussion about cameras, especially new versus old technology. The group realizes that the cloud isn’t moving because of timelapse security footage, much like Muybridge’s photos, which were sped together to create a single moving image, but in Nope, it’s the only thing not moving. Unlike the horse sequence, one photo doesn’t prove anything, as that would just show a cloud, it’s only when sped up that Angel and the others realize that it’s always the same cloud. Notable still is that once they realize this, OJ notes that he remembers seeing this cloud for the past few weeks, staring at it in the field, but never assumed it was the same one. Only through photos and film do the characters realize what their eyes couldn’t perceive, which is exactly what the horse rider sequence did. We return to this horse through Nope, and see how sinister that suspension can be, because we are no longer studying if a horse is ever fully suspended while running, we are studying something a new sinister type of suspension. Ricky uses OJ’s horses as a sacrifice for the alien, all for entertainment, while Emerald and OJ plan on sacrificing a horse for science, to get proof and measure what the alien looks like. They might have different intentions, but they are doing the exact same thing, thus illustrating the discussion around filmmaking in general. What is the point of footage? Is it to study spectacles or to entertain? Can it be both?

Nope ends with Emerald desperately using the well camera at Jupiter’s Claim to capture the moment the alien eats the park’s giant balloon. The camera is a tourist attraction, and so it only takes one photo at a time, printing them off as blank metal plates and then leaving them to develop on a small tray below. Emerald begins grabbing quarters from the ground to wind the camera, quarters left behind by the alien, spit out of the pockets of its victims. A falling quarter is what kills OJ and Emerald’s father early in the film, an ironic nod given OJ’s money problems following his father’s death. You might assume that the quarters are either going to help Emerald, like her father is helping her, or hinder her, like they did with her father. But the quarters don’t do either in this final sequence, as the photo doesn’t lead to the alien’s death. The balloon kills the alien, much like the balloon that led to Gordy’s death. Emerald’s desperation to get a photo is a last-ditch attempt to control the alien, to contain it in that photograph, something that can be studied and bring meaning to everything that has happened. If she gets that photo, maybe all of the sacrifice will be worth it, at least that is what the film begins to suggest.

Once the alien begins to choke on the balloon, Emerald sees her brother and Lucky in the distance, who she believed had been killed, and seeing that, she doesn’t stop to look at the photo. It’s no longer important, because despite all the spectacle it contains, its worth nothing compared to her brother. Neither of them feels the need to look up anymore, unlike the large crowd emerging just behind Emerald in the film’s final moments. It’s left unclear what this crowd saw, or even if there were any camera crews who captured the moment. The film thus ends with a Muybridge sequence, that same determination to capture something the human eye shouldn’t see, and then promptly abandons that reading, implying that there are more important things. The spectacle is no longer appealing to OJ and Emerald, and for that, they and Angel are the only figures who survive this encounter.   

“Don’t Look. Don’t Look. Don’t Look.”

Peele’s film seems to acknowledge its own involvement with spectacle, as it’s a film talking about films, and people’s desire to watch big blockbusters. Among its conversation about cameras, the film is talking about old versus new, like the old alien films that Angel and the group initially assume they are dealing with, instead of this new kind. More specifically, however, Nope discusses CGI versus old technology or ways of filming, like Muybridge’s work. We learn that digital cameras wont work with the alien, because it cuts off electricity, and so newer cameras can only tell the group where the alien is by which security camera turns off and when. Only non-digital cameras work, and that requires a specific filmmaker, one who refuses to go digital. OJ faces a threat of this nature even before meeting the alien, as he is trying to save the family business in light of new technology. It’s safer to work with a CGI horse or animal, and so there are less jobs available for trained horses, who can get spooked without proper set protocol. There are also only certain horses who are up to being tamed, as OJ’s father puts it, and even then, they aren’t human, they are not going to speak the same language you do, literally and behaviourally.

Take Gordy, the film argues that the Gordy’s Home show had already done one successful season, and so Gordy had been well behaved up until the birthday episode, and by then, everyone had relaxed on protocol. They wrongfully assumed that Gordy was human enough to care about the crew. The legacy of the Gordy incident suggests the same, because although it changed animal safety laws in Hollywood, the SNL skit described by Ricky has Gordy freak out anytime the jungle gets mentioned, which isn’t what happened. A balloon popped, something entirely manmade and unnatural, so it wasn’t that Gordy was reminded of home, the jungle, it was that he was startled enough to remind everyone that he wasn’t human. He didn’t forget that he was a wild animal, the cast and crew did.

Muybridge’s horse rider is ultimately about control, to control the movement in these photos by measuring it. To sort of control the horse by taking apart its movement and replaying it, long after the horse ran. People throughout Nope try to control animals, and the film makes it clear that you can’t. Even OJ, with a lifetime of training, knows that you always have to be careful, and play by their rules, not impose your own. The same goes for the alien, who operates like a territorial horse, and so you can’t look it in the eye. Everyone other than OJ tries to control the alien, even the director who is just there to study things. He implies as much during the dining room scene, where the group is chatting about their plan, and Antlers begins singing an ominous version of “The Purple People Eater” song. Antlers’ rendition is the reason I began thinking about the playground motto mentioned at the beginning of this article, because Antlers takes a childhood song and imposes it onto something more serious. The song tells you everything you need to know about Antlers, as in the third stanza, the singer announces:

“Well he came down to earth and he laid in the tree
I said Mr. Purple People Eater, don’t eat me
I heard him say in a voice so gruff
“I wouldn’t eat you ’cause you’re so tough”

Being tough is the opposite of what you should do with this alien, as though you are equally strong. The song might be about a “One-eyed…flyin’…people eater”, but that’s where the similarity between it and the alien ends. The character in the song gets spared because he and the monster are both “gruff” and “tough”, almost like the monster respects the singer. The song demonstrates that Antlers is ascribing meaning to the alien based on his own self importance, just like Ricky did with the Gordy incident. Ultimately, neither Gordy nor the alien care about this characterization, because unlike the humans, they aren’t comparing themselves.  

“Why is Ghost in the Arena?”

You’ll notice that each of the titles shown in the film mention a dead animal, specifically an animal who will die in the following section. Everyone from Clover to Gordy, until the final time, which is the film’s title. Peele is an apparently an animal rights activist in Hollywood, and his other film Us (2019) also features animals, mainly rabbits. While I believe most of the horse shots in Nope feature actual horses, Gordy is CGI, and I think that is crucial to the film. Take the scene where OJ leaves the studio after Lucky tries to kick the principal actress. As he does, we see a CGI horse model being led into the studio, replacing the live animal with something easier to control, but more importantly, safer. Gordy needed to be CGI, because just like the Gordy incident suggests, wild animals should not be on film sets. One would think Hollywood would have learned this given movies like Roar, where Tippi Hedren and her entire family, who starred in the film, were brutally mauled by lions. Or Hedren’s other animal trauma movie, The Birds (1963), where a horrible Alfred Hitchcock threw live crows at Hedren, and a few scratched her eyes. Or, more recently, the horrific treatment viewers saw in documentary shows like Tiger King (2020) where many of the featured abused animals were trained for Hollywood interviews and films.

While it’s one thing to have a horse on set instead of a chimp, there still needs to be safety protocol, both for the production team and the horse. Each of the animal deaths in Nope are upsetting, especially as we eventually learn that the horrific alien noises featured throughout the film are actually horses screaming while being devoured. While most of the characters are willing to sacrifice horses, OJ isn’t, he goes back for Lucky multiple times, and both survive. I think that determination is why the film’s final title is just its name, because perhaps, like the names it mentioned before, Nope is dead. The fear and uncertainty that word represents in the movie is finally over, as previously, the only time a character says “Nope” in the film is when they are facing the alien and realizing how disturbing it is, although I do have to double check that. By ending the film in this way, Nope implies that the spectacle is over, as are the animal deaths featured in the earlier titles. Spectacles and animals are connected throughout the film, and so this ending likewise implies that the politics around both in Hollywood should be re-examined, not just in this film, but in the very way we approach filmmaking.