Look Away: Instinct as Deterministic Force in Jordan Peele’s Nope

Thomas M. Puhr

Note: This piece contains spoilers.

In a series of one-sheets released for Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022), the horror film’s characters stare skyward, expressions of wide-eyed fear dominating their faces. They almost appear hypnotized. What, we wonder, is eliciting this response? The seemingly spoiler-heavy trailers suggest they’re observing a UFO (the silver disc pursuing Daniel Kaluuya would be right at home on the cover of a ’50s sci-fi paperback). But Peele has much more up his sleeve than a simple alien invasion movie, and his third act revelations regarding that thing in the sky indicate a thematic preoccupation with humanity’s innate lack of self-control.

Nope is about how hard it is to look away, even (perhaps especially) from danger. In a twist worthy of peak M. Night Shyamalan (whose influence, like that of Steven Spielberg, looms large over this genre effort), OJ Haywood (Kaluuya) realizes two things. First, that the UFO stalking the grounds of his isolated ranch is not a flying saucer but a living, breathing creature; the darkened opening at its base turns out to be an agape mouth (it also resembles a pupil, the unmoving cloud behind which it hides a sort-of eyelid) rather than a portal for beaming up abductees. And second, that it targets people who stare at it. In order to avoid being sucked through its mouth and vaporized into a bloody mist, all one has to do is not look as it passes overhead.

Easier said than done. Time and again, characters are warned not to look only to do just that. If Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), the protagonist of Peele’s Us (2019), realizes her fate is inextricably linked with that of her subterranean doppelganger, then Nope’s ragtag crew of stargazers find themselves subordinate to something like primeval instinct. If you see, you die—but it is oh-so-tempting to sneak a peek. Take Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a world-famous cinematographer whom OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) recruit to capture footage of the elusive creature. He keeps the camera rolling even as he is devoured, his attaining the “perfect shot” coming at the cost of his life. The irresistible, near-animalistic impulse to watch is embedded in the act of filmmaking (and filmgoing) itself, this satirical swipe at artistic pretension suggests.

The irresistible, near-animalistic impulse to watch is embedded in the act of filmmaking (and filmgoing) itself…

This human tendency is most memorably on display in a subplot regarding Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star whose traumatic experience on a sitcom set fuels his quest to sell tickets for viewings of the creature. In a flashback that may very well be Peele’s most frightening sequence to date, young Ricky hides under a table while his “costar”—a chimpanzee named Gordy—mutilates and kills other actors after the noise of a balloon popping (a clever portension of the grand finale) causes him to run amok. Little Ricky betrays no emotion; he simply watches. Gordy turns and spots him under the table. They lock eyes. Gordy approaches, but the boy remains still. Adult Ricky emerges as something of a daredevil showman, one who seems to delight in looking danger in the face, as well as making a buck off it. He stares into the abyss and the abyss stares right back.

Reflecting on Nope, I’ve been reminded more than once of a Chicago news broadcast I saw a few years ago during a particularly grueling winter. As the voiceover spoke of deadly sheets of ice sliding off the sides of skyscrapers and crashing to the ground, footage showed pedestrians standing where some had just fallen, craning their necks to get a better view. Such behavior may defy reason (“I would never be so dumb,” we tell ourselves at home, shaking our heads in disapproval), but it happens all the time. Think of the child who inevitably puts their hand on the hot stove even after being warned they’d get burned. We’re drawn to that which hurts us because—in a sensation bordering on the perverse—the experience can also be kind of thrilling. That which elicits the titular “nope” of incredulity from various characters also excites them.

Peele’s third feature is first and foremost a crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster, but its deeper philosophical implications are difficult to ignore. It embodies my conception of deterministic cinema: self-reflexive films that call attention to their characters’ (as well as their audiences’) lack of genuine freedom. In Nope’s case, the manipulating force guiding human action comes not from some supernatural presence but from within. It’s instinct itself—embedded in our very DNA, not much unlike that of an ape—that compels us to stare into the heavens, even if there’s a chance we’ll be sucked into the bowels of a giant flying monster. Or impaled by falling ice.

Thomas M. Puhr is an instructor at Dominican University in Illinois and an editor of the film magazine The Big Picture. He is the author of Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema.

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