The Best New Movie Monster I have Ever Seen
(Beginning With a Full Spoiler Review of Jordan Peele's Nope)
Nope was teased beginning in early 2021, with no more than that cryptic image of colored flags dangling from a cloud. Similarly cryptic were its first trailers, only alluding to something uncanny going on with the sky. All the way to its premiere, it was uncertain what precisely "Nope" was going to be about other than bizarre atmospheric phenomena as a whole, and finally rumors of it being a "U.F.O. movie." Even shortly into its run, it was still being described as a story about "aliens," but that really couldn't have been farther from the truth...and while it does in fact feature the best new movie monster I have ever seen, a monster is far from all Nope is about, and it's far from all my feelings on it will be about, either.
Nope opens immediately on the sight of a television stage set, splattered in blood by the rampage of a performing chimpanzee. How this is to factor in with the rest of the story and themes is kept ambiguous, and surprisingly enough still confuses some reviewers, but it's already quite relevant to the proceeding scenes introducing our main characters.
Otis Haywood (Keith David) is the owner of Haywood's Hollywood Horses, a ranch that trains horses for use in film and television with the help of his son, Otis Junior or "OJ" Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya). On an otherwise typical day at the ranch, without warning, small objects begin to fall from the sky; keys, coins, things you would find in people's pockets or wallets. By freak chance, a nickel penetrates Otis Sr's eye socket and embeds in his brain, killing him by the time his son can take him to the Hospital.
It's a painfully senseless way to lose a loved one, and a jarring cut to his lifeless face, eye still oozing blood, is the only time the movie is so graphic on-screen. An interesting choice in a genre typically intent on escalating the gore and mayhem as a narrative goes on.
Months later, we see that OJ has continued his father's work, but he still shows signs of trauma. He's always been a shy, quiet man, but he's even more awkward in his ongoing state of depression, still in shock at the unbelievable end of his closest family and personal hero.
It doesn't help of course that he's a small-town black man surrounded by busy Hollywood hipsters, and that he's filling in last-minute for his more famous father as the animal handler for a commercial shoot. The film crew fall just shy of outright laughing off OJ's grave safety precautions, forgetting that a horse is a large, heavy, powerful animal. It is entirely their own faults when the horse is spooked into very nearly kicking someone's head off, but even with OJ's more extroverted sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) coming to his rescue, Haywood Ranch is fired from the crucial gig.
This is when we're introduced to Ricky Park, (Steven Yeun) known as "Jupe" for creating and running the local theme park, Jupiter's Claim. Jupe has been purchasing horses from the Haywoods for the past few weeks, and is strangely pressuring about buying their whole ranch for reasons that will become clearer a bit later. In the meantime, we learn that he was once a child actor famous as "Mikey" on the hit comedy, Gordy's Home.
A hit comedy about a family that adopts a chimpanzee.
Jupe has an entire private room dedicated to artifacts from the show, and when asked about the incident, it's telling that he instead describes, in increasingly hushed tones, a "Saturday Night Live" parody of the events rather than readily recall what he really experienced. As we learn from flashback clips, "Gordy" was triggered by no more than a popping balloon to begin mauling his human co-stars, leaving Jupe the only actor unscathed and one of only a couple still alive at all.
OJ goes home to consider Jupe's business offer, but that night, the ranch experiences strange power fluctuations, something seems to terrify the horses and at least one has disappeared. It seems there's something strange in the sky, an unidentifiable round, dark object glimpsed only momentarily, and it also makes its presence known by objects falling from the sky. It's also interesting that, while the audience hasn't had a clear glimpse of this "UFO" itself, we have had some mysterious shots from within a square shaped, metallic tunnel.
To Emerald, a UFO might be the real answer to their money problems, and it may be the least they can do to give closure to their father's perplexing death. Their efforts to catch the phenomenon on film bring in Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a bit of a gamer and tech bro immdiately enraptured by the possibility of proving the existence of space aliens.
It's angel who notices that, over many hours of camera footage, there's a single small cloud in the sky that remains stationary; clearly where their "flying saucer" is hiding. This time, the object gets away with a fiberglass statue of a horse, rather than a real one, but its electromagnetic distortion makes it difficult to photograph. Emerald attempts to contact legendary cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) who is renowned for getting "impossible shots," but he's not interested. Interestingly enough, our introduction to this character has him intently reviewing footage of the eyes of various animals, and later, footage of animals consuming one another.
We then return to Jupe, and we get some new flashbacks of the Gordy Incident. It seems that once Gordy saw the younger Jupe hiding under a table, he calmed down and almost gave the little boy a "fist bump," something Gordy's Home actually invented in this continuity, only for the animal to be shot dead on the spot by security. It's the moment that has haunted Jupe his entire life, but also left him with a sense of special connection to animals and a "greatness" he's destined for. Through his carefully rehearsed and dramatic speech, we learn that he has been "communicating" with "extraterrestrial beings," by which he means he has been giving the "aliens" horses on a regular schedule, and now that he's confident he can get them to appear on command, he's finally brought a crowd together to witness what he believes will be historic interplanetary contact.
When the "UFO" shows up, and the horse is unfortunately inaccessible within a protective cage, it goes for the next best thing: all those conveniently untethered human beings. This leads to what many feel is the most horrific sequence in the entire film, as we watch the entire crowd sucked up into a vortex and into the claustrophobic, membranous interior of the floating disk, which is not an alien spaceship, or any kind of spaceship, or any kind of machine. Oj already put it together: we've been dealing with an animal, and it is a predator.
All the more disturbingly, the organism's presence can now be tracked by the echoing screams of its still-living prey, a sound like the cheers from a roller coaster if the roller coaster was also slowly shredding people's flesh and soaking them in acid. It doesn't seem to be quite normal for the process to take so long, exactly, but the thing is still trailing the flags attached to that horse statue, which is still lodged in its throat.
The next most horrific moment comes that night, as Emerald and Angel take shelter in the house. We continue to hear the haunting screams of the Jupiter Ranch family and their visitors, even a distinct shout of "IT'S BURNING ME" before the voices are cut short with one final, abrupt crunch. The creature once more regurgitates everything it couldn't digest, but this time that includes a grisly rain of blood and gore, a slurry that was over a hundred people mere moments ago...and that damn pesky horse statue. The poor thing got a tummyache :(
After staying with Angel for a couple of days, the three find none other than Antlers parked outside their home, having had a change of heart that maybe these people aren't just random crazies; especially now that he can see their house is drenched in blood, and the eagle-eyed film veteran doesn't need a camera to have spotted that mysteriously unmoving cloud, either.
OJ names the creature Jean Jacket, after one of their favorite horses, and through his observations he's determined that its predatory aggression is most likely triggered specifically by eye contact. The group puts together an elaborate plan to lure the creature and track its movement with a minefield of skydancers - more commonly called "tube men" - which will not only entice Jean Jacket with their false eyes, but cease dancing whenever it passes overhead. To capture its attention and guide it where they need, OJ also customizes a hoodie with reflective eyespots he can take on or off as needed. Once they have the atmospheric beast where they want it, it's just up to Antlers to capture it on traditional, non-electronic film.
There are unfortunately two major snags that present themselves: first is an unexpected visit by a reporter for the infamously trashy TMZ news, which already has dollar signs in its eyes over the Jupiter Ranch disappearances, and you may realize that if our heroes don't successfully tell the world what's really going on, Jean Jacket might get a continuous stream of fresh food poking around. Due to driving an entirely electronic motorcycle, the paparazzi creep has an unfortunate accident on hitting "JJ's" electromagnetic field, and already adds to its kill count.
Then there's Antlers, who successfully captures film of the whole ordeal, but is evidently so awed by the spectacular experience, he can't resist taking it as further as possible, filming all the while as he approaches the creature and allows himself, camera and all, to be its second course of the day.
Jean Jacket then attempts to slurp up Angel, but ends up ingesting a lot of indigestible junk instead, including some barbed wire. Emerald begins making her way to the abandoned TMZ motorbike, evidently concocting some unknown plan of her own, but now the highly agitated air-beast is beginning to change shape, revealing that it isn't just a compact saucer as it unfurls a spectacular array of organic sails.
OJ draws its attention away from his sister, and at this point we see what is roughly confirmed to be territorial display as it extends a square-shaped, lens-like eye surrounded by a huge square of bizarrely "snapping" and undulating green ribbons. This eye is also believed to be part of that "tunnel" we've seen a number of times in the film, and that it allows the organism to see by a process similar to a camera obscura!
With the e-bike, Emerald distracts the animal back away from her brother and leads it back to Jupiter's Claim, realizing the face of its giant, inflatable mascot might be the perfect bait; and it's even tethered over one of the park's minor attractions, a well that doubles as a giant camera. Jean Jacket is pretty pissed off by the balloon, snapping its eye a few more times before it finally attempts to eat the floating cowboy and tragically explodes...though not before Emerald manages to get that single, crucial snapshot.
In our final moments, we see the photograph that will prove JJ's existence, and a glimpse of OJ having survived the creature's final attack; both all but proven canon by something we'll elaborate on shortly, but for now I'd just like to say wow, what a beautifully tight little story this was. I'm downright dumbfounded by reviews that call Nope confusing, muddled or unfocused; it really couldn't be more streamlined, and not a moment is wasted on anything extraneous to the plot. If you still aren't sure how, I hope the rest of this review will make it clearer.
The Movie and its Monster:
Opinions & Analysis
I would obviously have a lot of favorite movie monsters, but the sad fact of the matter is that you can even find singular video games out there with a wider variety of creature designs than the sum of almost every horror movie ever filmed, and that's if you even exclude collectable "mons" games.
Yes, once in a great while there's been an Alien or Tremors to inject a novel trope to the genre, but even those are relatively conservative, when you get right down to it; Giger's xenomorph isn't cinema's first parasitoid, nor are Graboids its first fossorial vermiforms. In fact, it's been relatively uncommon since nearly the 50's that any "creature feature" has been the honest to goodness theatrical DEBUT of an entire monster subcategory, such as when Them first brought dangerously magnified insects to the big screen or The Blob was its first carnivorous ooze in a starring role.
Even when a "mainstream" monster gives us something relatively new, there's still a tendency to err on the aesthetically familiar. No offense to Clover, the Death Angels or Demogorgon here, who all have their merits, but they're just a few of the many, many film and television monsters since the 2000's who trend towards greyish, hairless tetrapods with modestly unusual mouths and little else. So homogeneous are live-action monsters, in fact, that Demogorgon is the only creature with flower-petal jaws the average person is now familiar with, despite how common the feature has always been in the creature design of other mediums and, in some cases, real life (nematoda, for the most part.)
And that's another thing: our world is packed with organisms shaped like nothing most people have ever even imagined, and I find myself quietly begging live-action horror productions to look at Echinoderms, Cnidarians, Polychaetes, maybe even Arthropoda beyond the usual spiders, wasps and beetles. Some of the most amazing and, from the perspective of their food, genuinely terrifying living things in our own world are significantly less human than the vast, vast majority of CGI'd creepshow beasts; arguably less familiar than the Xenomorph, the Graboid or even the Blob.
Leave it to Jordan Peele to step up to this plate in such a dramatic way. According to at least one interview, he was partially inspired by the Angels from Evangelion to bring audiences a more surreal and unconventional monster than they're used to, but simultaneously wanted a degree of scientific believability. Art director Leandre Lagrange finalized the look of the being, but the creative process included extensive consultation with biologists. Peele and the art team looked over such animals as sand dollars, cuttlefish and even one of my personal favorites, larvaceans - an organism I've actually used in the past as an example of how much more outlandish real creatures can be than most in fiction.
The idea of an "atmospheric beast," like a giant floating jellyfish, is not in itself a new one. I've seen them in gaming, animation and literature all my life, including Arthur Conan Doyle's short story The Horror of the Heights, in which an amateur pilot discovers an aerial ecosystem dominated by semi-gaseous tentacled predators. Like the aforementioned Graboids or Blobs however, this obscure of monster had little to no presence in film, outside perhaps Toho's Dogora from the movie of the same name, though Dogora actually is an extraterrestrial alien...and I don't believe that's what Jean Jacket is supposed to be at all. In fact, when viewers come away still reading into it as a space monster story, they may be falling for the very same trap the film is deconstructing.
As soon as anyone else in the film catches on to the presence of a giant, silvery disc in the sky, they're immediately swept up in the dazzling mythology of intelligent alien visitors. They technically have no idea what they're dealing with, but they allow decades of popular culture to bias their conclusion and immediately assume that this is a kind of round airplane built by spacemen from billions of miles away; kind of a ridiculous jump when you get down to it, isn't it?
Only the practical-minded OJ sees past this romanticism; confronted with a giant, flying disc that appears to abduct people and animals, he makes no assumptions at all about what he's looking at. He hasn't let any conspiracy theories or cryptozoology or Hollywood speculation muddle the fact that what he's seeing is truly something unknown to him and clearly very dangerous. His first priority is to just take absolutely no chances screwing around with an unknown, and we can see, even when he doesn't say anything, that he's laser-focused on observing everything he can about how it behaves - just as he's had to do all his life to handle animals that can very easily kill you if they're underestimated. Of course he realizes that the "spaceship" is an animal! He's seen it camouflaging itself, stalking prey, waiting for the right moment to strike and even mistakenly attack things that resemble live prey; hardly the actions of a machine operated by a crew of interstellar explorers.
And yet, I notice even many of the film's reviewers continue to interpret Jean Jacket as something from another world. Granted, there are many films in which a mere "animal" arrives to Earth from another planet or even from some parallel reality, and Nope never necessarily rules that out, but it honestly never even crossed my mind that the creature was anything other than an undiscovered Earthly species.
This is most supported by it already having a canon taxonomic classification. We mentioned that professional biologists consulted on this film, and you can read much more about that in an interview with marine biologist Kelsi Rutledge. Though this hasn't been released to the public at this time, Rutledge was eventually tasked with writing up a realistic "scientific paper" on the discovery of what she names Occulonimbus edoquus, or "Hidden Dark Cloud Stallion-Eater." According to the interview, the paper proposes a brand new phylum for the organism along with a hypothetical evolutionary history, and also serves as a sort of stealth epilogue to the entire film; "in character" as herself, Rutledge is canonically the biologist who works directly with OJ, Emerald and Angel to formally publish their discovery, crediting all three as co-authors. All at once, this confirms that Emerald's final effort was a success, that she did not hallucinate OJ's survival, and that the creature is believed in-universe to have evolved right here on Earth.
That such a thing could have eluded formal documentation for so long isn't all that unbelievable, either. For starters, it's easy to conclude that their activity is typically much further out of sight; the species seems to carefully disguise itself until it can ambush relatively isolated prey, JJ may not have come to associate humans with food until Jupe began actively feeding it, and even if a dead specimen fell to the Earth...who would recognize those flimsy, silvery membranes as part of an animal at all, assuming they don't just dissolve into sludge within minutes of cellular death? I would also posit that they normally hunt some other undocumented organisms in the upper atmosphere, but that JJ may have sought alternatives when this natural prey grew scarce.
But as cryptic as the creatures are, they still never hid themselves completely from human eyes, and we aren't just talking about Martian Saucer reports, either.
There's one moment, as JJ lurches skyward, that its silhouette recalls an almost humanoid figure in a hooded robe; a visual you could connect to all manner of spirits, angels, gods and of course the good old Flatwoods Monster.
Later, as JJ drifts on its translucent sails, you can imagine circumstances under which it may have been perceived as some heavenly chariot, a divine "sky boat" or even a "ghost ship" like the legendary Flying Dutchman.
The existence of such creatures would also explain every notorious tale of improbable objects falling from the sky, blood rains and other anomalous weather phenomenon, not to mention any number of unexplained disappearances, the Bermuda Triangle, vanishing airplane pilots, cattle mutilations, even phenomena as obscure as star jelly...and how perfect is it that the tissues of the beast could also be mistaken for the remnants of a weather balloon, the most infamous explanation given for "UFO crashes?"
Jean Jacket is a monster perfectly conceived to be the missing puzzle piece of human culture; a single, mortal creature behind countless mysteries we've ascribed to the supernatural. It may be fantastic and it may break the laws of physics after a point, but it still has an impressive core of biological feasibility. Living things already generate their own electricity, some far more than others, and some already utilize electromagnetism to fly thousands of miles, a principle we've also begun to explore for lightweight robotic aircraft. There are also fairly common birds that can remain aloft for months at a time as they take advantage of rising thermal currents, and we can't rule out that this creature may employ a lightweight gas to keep itself even more buoyant in the air - was that fiery explosion really from popping Jupe's mascot balloon, or possibly from JJ's own hydrogen reserves? The only thing that might be impossible to explain is how the creature can generate a vortex powerful enough to collect prey without expending more nutrient energy than it stands to gain, but there's always the possibility that it photosynthesizes, too, and stores extra power for that period harvesting of protein and calcium. Maybe it's even like a female mosquito, only needing blood to boost its "egg" production or some other biological process? For every question I've seen raised about the creature's biology, I can name multiple precedents or at least very close approximations in nature.
In my honest opinion, interpretations of Jean Jacket as a lifeform from an alien planet miss the point of almost everything that went into its conception, and especially the point of the entire film's overt anti-sensationalism message. The script doesn't have OJ calling it a "monster" or even a "creature;" he calls it an animal, the most familiar Earthly term we have for a living thing. There's a running thread throughout the film of people dangerously misunderstanding wild animals, and every element from the tragedy of Gordy to the fatal nosiness of the TMZ reporter ties this thread into a deeper theme of "media spectacle" and its folly.
It's a movie about a sky monster, yes, but it's also a movie about how a lust for entertainment can blind people to reality, and the dangers that arise when you see what you want more than you see what's actually in front of you. You can't just treat a Chimpanzee like a human actor, a horse like an inanimate prop, human deaths like a cash grab or a hungry flying predator like E.T. and be surprised when it backfires. You also can't put your fellow human beings into stereotyped boxes and be surprised when they defy your expectations (for better or for worse) either. Occulonimbus edoquus is one of the most beautiful and novel film creatures in many, many years, and I really do hope that it might cement "atmospheric beasts" in popular culture the way those graboids did for sandworms or the xenomorphs for parasitoids, but it's also a narrative symbol for a lot of important ideas our clickbait-eaten world could really stand to chew over every now and then.
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