Caveat Emptor: It is impossible to talk about a movie without TALKING ABOUT THE MOVIE, so there are spoilers here. My apologies.
Over the course of several years in the mid-1870’s, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge set out to use still images to prove that a horse in motion was, at one point in its gait, airborne, with all four of its legs in the air at once. His revolutionary process, assembled from multiple still images that used electromagnetic tripwires to trigger cameras that captured the horse’s stride in sequence, took years to perfect. The end result that has endured, a series of still photos called THE HORSE IN MOTION that, when put in sequence, animate the horse Sallie Gardner ridden by a black jockey known only as G. Dobbs, uses the power of the moving image to harness nature, capture it, explain it, understand it. By looking at these images in motion, a new understanding was created. It changed everything, a proto-cinema that will live forever in history.
This foundational cinematic impulse, the need to capture images to prove, validate, observe, and control our relationship to the natural world, is the illuminating idea at the heart of Jordan Peele’s thrilling new film NOPE, which draws a direct line from Muybridge’s images to a fictional, supernatural present. But it also centers black experience and black people in not only the history of film production, but in the spectacle of American cinematic myth making.
Like the American western (and Muybridge’s famous images), the backbone of Peele’s fictional Haywood Family Ranch is the relationship between man and horse. Situated in an expansive California valley, not far down the road from a modest theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, dedicated to the cinematic tropes of the American western, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) carries on his late father’s business of keeping and training horses for the film industry, a business founded by the family’s early patriarch who, they claim, was the rider astride Sallie Gardner in Muybridge’s famous images.
Early on in NOPE, OJ and his horse Lucky stand in front of a green screen on a film set, a set populated and run by white workers, ready to film an aging white actress on horseback. But OJ is repeatedly silenced while trying to articulate the required safety parameters for the workers as they interact with the horse, until his partner and sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) shows up and takes over, explaining the family’s history and setting out a cursory list of animal safety requirements. When a technician ignores OJ’s objections and places a mirror in front of Lucky’s face, the horse rebels at the twisted reflection of its self-image and kicks out violently, narrowly missing the actors and forcing his and OJ’s exile from the set, with Lucky replaced by a green screen model of a horse.
The moment is crucial, not only as a plot device, but as the continuation of the theme established in the film’s seemingly unrelated first moments, when we glimpse the aftermath of a chimpanzee attack on the set of a TV show. As the animal slowly calms down, now covered in the blood of a fallen actress, it turns and looks at the camera (and thus, the audience). This scene is repeated and expanded later in the film when we discover that the chimpanzee was the star of the beloved TV series GORDY’S HOME and that one of his co-stars survived his attack; Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), the man who runs the Jupiter’s Claim theme park. Despite the trauma of witnessing the chimp attack, Jupe doesn’t learn his lesson— his attempt to turn nature into a controlled spectacle backfires just as violently as the chimp who killed his cast mates.
These animals— the kicking horse, the murderous chimpanzee— provide the film’s thematic through line, one made explicit in the character of cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who the Haywood siblings recruit to help them film an unexplained phenomenon in their valley. Holst is found in his editing room, watching footage of animals embroiled in a life and death battle (a tiger and a giant snake), filmed in black and white, creatures at war with one another, an unbelievable spectacle of violence. It’s no wonder, then, that he decides to join the Haywoods to try to capture the first images of alien life on Earth.
The relationship between the natural world — here embodied by animals, the foundational subject of film itself in Muybridge’s images— and cinema becomes violent; cinema, Peele implies, is incapable of taming the natural world, but the attempt to tame, to recreate nature, has lead the cinema to a new, artificial place, one that only deepens our desire to capture reality itself. And nature, confronted with the reflection of itself through the lens of filmmaking, must rebel.
And so, the valley becomes a sort of contemporary re-staging of Muybridge’s foundational project— cameras strategically deployed to capture an image of the alien “ship”, the alien’s powerful energy suppressing magnetism delineated in the landscape by hilarious arm waving promotional inflatables as a sort of inversion of the photographic mechanism used to capture THE HORSE IN MOTION, an analog, hand cranked IMAX camera to both bypass the alien’s ability to suppress electrical power and also wink back to earlier motion picture cameras— all in service of proving what no human has ever seen before, of creating an image that will live forever, that will explicitly tie the Haywoods back to the jockey astride Sallie Gardner in Muybridge’s images. But here, instead of being anonymously captured in service of the subject, the black siblings are the creators of the image, the white technicians working in service of their vision; they will not be unknown names, lost to time like G. Dobbs. The Haywoods are the masterminds of the footage that will change everything.
Except, things are not what they first appear. In a brilliant twist, the alien ship is discovered to be not a ship at all, but an actual predatory, alien animal. And, like the movie cowboys who have come to define the western valley that the alien covets, this animal is seeking territorial conquest, destroying all of the life it discovers in order to dominate the land it seeks to control. And so, as the film has made explicit throughout, the power of cinema to tame the untamable, to capture the reality of the unknowable nature of the alien, is useless— the alien’s animal power overwhelms the crew and forces them to retreat to Jupiter’s Claim, the symbol of the cinematic Western, to finish the standoff.
There, Emerald releases a giant inflatable cowboy, the dominant symbol of American territorial expansion, which floats up to the sky and which the alien immediately stalks. And then, as the balloon and monster hover high above the theme park, they settle directly over a well that serves as a coin operated photo booth with its lens pointed to the sky. Emerald, seizing on the opportunity, begins to take a series of still photos using the well’s camera, hoping to finally capture an image of the alien. As she manually cranks out photos, the alien finally attacks, and she gets the image; like Muybridge’s airborne horse, she has captured proof of the animal, an image that will live forever.
But this is neither the film’s final reclamation nor its final shot— that honor belongs to OJ and Lucky, the black rider atop his black horse. The moment is an inversion of Muybridge’s attempt to capture motion, a man and his animal now standing still in the aftermath of the alien’s defeat, anchored to the ground they have re-claimed. This moment brings us full circle, back to the foundational image of cinema, of America, and shifts its power to OJ, to Peele, to us, to make something new again from what was.