Release Date: July 22nd, 2022
Director: Jordan Peele | MPAA Rating: R | LeavittLens Rating: 9/10
*Spoilers ahead in the review*
“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” -Walter Brueggemann, “The Prophetic Imagination”
When we hear the word “prophet,” it often conjures a particular image in our modern collective imagination: we think of someone whose job it is to predict the future from within a darkened workroom, their face shrouded by an oversized hood, hands working magically over a crystal ball or mysterious cards and symbols. The prophet, for many of us, has become a glorified fortune teller, tapping into numinous spiritual realities that we so often overlook in our daily lives. As is the case with many spiritual notions or ideas, our increasingly secularized culture has caricatured the “prophet,” making them an intriguing but ultimately dying relic of a bygone spiritualized era.
So when we see one of the culture’s foremost trailblazing filmmakers like Jordan Peele begin each of his latest two films with an epigraph from biblical prophets (Jeremiah 11:11 in Us and Nahum 3:6 in Nope), it can leave us confused at best, and frustrated at worst. In a culture that is so keen on producing and consuming formulaic “Disneyfied” and “Marvelized” stories–with neatly wrapped-up endings, shallow quippy dialogue, and final battles that seem copy/pasted from the last installment in the series–Peele’s references and ambiguities have caused many to leave Nope in recent months dissatisfied. And such a response makes sense: when we develop a movie-watching culture insistent on being spoon-fed simple stories, it frustrates us to see someone so gifted insist on handing us a full plate of food that requires some work to chew and digest. Why these seemingly obscure references to texts that most folks in our culture, even religious ones, aren’t very familiar with? Why is Peele making things so hard on us?
Well, perhaps that’s precisely the point. See, for Peele, an artist who does little by accident in his work and whose self-awareness is “shining” all over the internet, Nope isn’t just a thrilling sci-fi blockbuster. It is an opportunity for a filmmaker to “tell all the truth but tell it slant,” as Emily Dickinson famously wrote. It is an invitation to the audience to dig deeper, to poke and prod and probe (forgive the extraterrestrial connotations) the ideas and images here to find truth in its midst. And, as it turns out, this deeper dive reveals a film with a distinct kinship to the prophetic tradition it cites.
At their most basic, the prophets of the Old Testament were not simply spiritual soothsayers. They were poets, image makers who had a keen pulse on the dominant and destructive perspectives of their times. They used striking visual imagery to critique the status quo and energize the people towards an alternative future. They conveyed essential ideas by implanting pictures in the psyches of their audience, cultivating new and different imaginative ways of perceiving themselves and the world. Nahum, considered one of the “minor” prophets in the bible (“minor” in relation to the length of his book, not its substance), struck up this same tradition. He wrote, in vivid poetic imagery, of the downfall that was to come to the oppressive city of Nineveh, the capital of the great Assyrian empire. He described Nineveh as a “city of blood, full of lies,” one which piles up the dead by their “charging cavalry, flashing swords, and glittering spears.” They are, in short, all of the worst of an oppressive empire, chewing up and spitting out their smaller neighbors all in the name of their own massive economic and political machine. Nahum’s poetry leaves an arresting imprint on his audience, and he goes on to say that, given the just character of the Lord, this buzzsaw of an empire will not rule the day. This is where the quotation that opens Nope comes into play: the Lord promises that he will bring down this oppressive nation, stating:
“I will pelt you with filth,
I will treat you with contempt
and make you a spectacle.” (Nahum 3:6)
Nahum has no problem admonishing–through poetic imagery–the systematic injustice of the Assyrian machine, and promising that its violence will lead to its ultimate downfall.
While Nope isn’t a film about an empire buried thousands of years in the past, it retains the spirit of Nahum in its own way. Early on in the film, we are introduced to the Haywood family, the owners and purveyors of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. They have trained and provided equestrian staffing for the film industry since moving pictures first began, starting with Alistair Haywood and continuing to his great-great-great grandchildren, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer). However, the mysterious and untimely death of O.J. and Emerald’s father, Otis (Keith David), combined with the recent onslaught of CGI-driven movies, have forced their company into hard times. Who needs real horses when you can make better looking ones on a computer? So the Haywoods have slowly sold off many of their horses to larger, more consumeristic entertainment venues, like “Jupiter’s Claim,” a small amusement park extension of the previously popular T.V. show and intellectual property, Kid Sheriff. Jupiter’s Claim is run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who seems adamant on creating as much of a spectacle as possible to attract the crowds, build a name for himself, and–perhaps more than anything–make plenty of money.
But soon something begins to happen in the desertous terrain of Agua Dulce, the location of the Haywood ranch and neighboring Jupiter’s claim. Horses are getting spooked in the middle of the night. Odd electronic anomalies are becoming commonplace. And to cap it all off, in one evening venture to recover a horse on the run, O.J. looks up to see something large looming and moving quickly through the sky.
As a premise, we’ve seen this sort of alien movie before – and Peele both knows we have and knows to whom his work is indebted. References to the Spielbergian “look of wonder” (see Jurassic Park, Close Encounters With The Third Kind, etc.) abound in Nope, plastered even onto the promotional posters for the film. The scene of blood pouring over the Haywood home can’t help but conjure memories of the famous elevator scene from The Shining, all the way down to the kitchen knife both characters hold in each film. Even the final third of Nope plays out similarly to the final third of Jaws, the original summer blockbuster. But remember: the prophets are never in it for the show. Peele still has Nahum on his mind.
Initially, the Haywoods think this might be their big break: they develop a plan to capture this UFO spectacle on digital cameras. Actually, it’s technically a “UAF,” as Fry’s Electronics and UAF aficionado Angel (in a hilarious turn for Brandon Perea) informs us in the film. In any case, as they begin their journey to capture and profit off this sighting, they soon realize that Jupe has already been monetizing this UAF before them, though eventually to his own demise. But they also learn that this isn’t just an alien spaceship: it’s a living, breathing organism – one that needs to be fed. No longer is this simply an amazing spectacle to try and cash in on: it has now transformed into a threat to the Haywood’s livelihood and life, ready to consume them and their ranch once and for all.
And suddenly, when we take Peele at his word and constant insistence to see his work as prophetic and poetic, this creature feature transforms into the critique of another empire. Think about it: what entity today provides dazzling displays that we look up at in wonder? What entity today emphasizes grandiose spectacle, all the while consuming smaller, original artisans and craftspeople along the way? An answer quickly comes into focus for us: Hollywood.
Peele seems to be commenting on the behemoth of our modern Hollywood industry and the way it has created a world of digitized, IP-driven spectacle. One need only look at the top box-office results for the last decade to see this empire at work: original storytellers and auteurs have been eaten up by the creature of monocultural consumerism, focusing more on sequels that can turn a profit than tales that can say something significant. Yet we all know, from the perspective of the prophets, that the empire never wins. There’s a resistance movement fighting against the injustice of greed, of consumerism, of all that has gone off-kilter in the world.
The Haywoods are that resistance movement. They realize that the only way to end the rule of the creature is the destroy the creature, so they put in motion an elaborate plan. But, given the creature’s uncanny ability to use electronic equipment against them, and its appetite for only consuming people who make direct eye contact with it, the Haywood’s have to be creative. Their battle plan involves no digital equipment whatsoever, and it mandates that none of them look up at the creature directly. Ther success hinges not on the way they can compete with the looming spectacle around them. Their victory is dependent on good, old-fashioned, practical resources, some original creativity, and above all an indifference to the spectacle above, avoiding eye contact in favor of producing the right results. And the culminating evidence of their triumph? A photograph–a real, non-digital photograph–of the creature just before its demise. The winners in Nope are not the ones who tried to corral or mimic or capture the spectacle (those folks eventually were eaten alive); the winners are the ones who resist the grandiose production altogether, who insist on the right ways and means to accomplish the right ends.
One can hardly help but see Peele writing himself into the Haywood family. He’s a man who has boldly created three original stories in an era of unoriginal filmmaking, and who has deftly woven resonant, prophetic social commentary into those works. He is a writer-director who seems unafraid of the empire around him, committed to defeating the monster using the right ways and means along the way. As someone whose own vocation of ministry has been overtaken by superficial spectacle, Peele’s work here remains a particular inspiration for me in my own pursuit of prophetic, authentic, and original work. But even a cursory glance around our culture reveals that a multitude of disciplines have been touched by, and corrupted by, the pursuit of spectacle. As Guy Debord wrote in his 1967 work Society of the Spectacle, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
In a world obsessed with this sort of impressive spectacle and production, Nope is a reminder to all of us: every spectacular empire falls, and the ones who are left are the poets and the prophets, the scrappy and the humble.
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