An old-timey hubcap-shaped UFO soars through the sky in Nope, Jordan Peele’s gnarliest horror offering yet. It’s not just visually striking monster-movie iconography, but timely, too. As one of the leads mentions, the U.S. government only recently declassified UFO footage and believing in extraterrestrial life now seems almost like common sense.
There’s another classically UFO-ish image from the recent past, however, that Peele may have had in mind while constructing Nope—the inflatable flying saucer from the infamous Balloon Boy incident. If that sounds like a stretch, well, so did the existence of UFOs up until recently.
Long before he situated his latest villain in the sky, Peele’s films had been saddled with the label of “elevated horror.” It’s a snobby way to describe how those films are dense with deeply considered choices, hidden symbols and subthemes, and ambiguities that feel tantalizingly resolvable. Movies like Get Out and Us aren’t over when they end; they’re over when you finish talking about them three hours later, if they don’t haunt your dreams or send you spelunking down an endless Reddit hole.
Nope is no exception. Practically every deliberate detail in it demands further examination and is rife with potential interpretation.
On the surface, the film is about horse-wrangling siblings trying to capture irrefutable footage of alien life. Its premise could be tidily summarized as Pics or It Didn’t Happen: The Movie, but there’s a lot more going on than that. Those siblings, O.J. and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer), work in Hollywood, where their lineage goes back to the jockey riding a horse in the first motion picture ever assembled. They live near a cartoonish Western theme park run by Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a faded child star still capitalizing on his narrow escape from a deadly chimp rampage on the set of a ’90s sitcom. As for that alien life: It’s not little green men, but rather an organic flying saucer-shaped predator that’s hungry for humans and horses.
Tellingly, the human characters do not spend the movie fleeing for survival. Contrary to the title, they could nope out of the situation at just about any point by alerting the Space Force or whomever, but don’t. Instead, they each try to exploit the alien in different ways and for different reasons and, as a title card Bible verse alludes to, “make [it] a spectacle.” A nature documentarian (Michael Wincott) wants to be the one who captures an impossible shot of the alien. Jupe wants to turn it into a theme-park attraction, much the way his long-ago former employers thought they could turn a chimpanzee into the star of a sitcom. (And with much the same results.) O.J. and Emerald want money and fame and the chance to be on the other side of the camera in a historic bookend to the film their ancestor starred in, forever uncredited.
In the end, almost all of them are literally consumed by their desire to exploit the alien.
So, what does any of this have to do with Balloon Boy—the subject of a largely forgotten hoax from 2009, in which a man pretended his six-year old son was trapped alone in a UFO-shaped balloon for many hours as the whole world watched? Let’s get into it!
Anyone who has seen a Jordan Peele movie knows Peele wouldn’t just randomly name Kaluuya’s character “O.J.” It’s such a conspicuous name for a Black man in Hollywood at any point after the mid-’90s (or even back then) that a minor character in Nope is shocked to hear it. When O.J.’s sister, Emerald (whose name, it’s worth noting, recalls both the color of money and of little green men) yells out, “Run, O.J.!” at multiple points during the film, it might bring to mind O.J. Simpson either running on a football field as one kind of spectacle, or running from authorities as another.
When that O.J. fled in a white Bronco (a type of horse!) after allegedly murdering his wife and her lover in 1994, the whole world watched. If you were alive and anywhere near a TV that day, you watched O.J. run for hours. You might have even ordered pizza.
It was a private tragedy that became maximally public live entertainment. Would O.J. turn himself in? Would he kill himself? How would it all end? Nobody could look away—or stop broadcasting—for fear of not finding out in real time.
This willingness to participate in mass exploitation has reverberated through the decades since—and evolved. Now, anyone with a TikTok account can speculate on who killed Gabby Petito or whether Amber Heard wronged Johnny Depp and find an audience. There seems to be a new public spectacle every day; and in every instance, each of us is either the entertainers, the entertainment, or the entertained.
One idea Peele seems interested in plumbing, though, is: which of these three categories is feeding off of which?
Yuen’s character, Jupe, at one point dubs the alien species The Viewers. It’s a typically enigmatic touch that might have any number of meanings, but perhaps Peele wanted to nod toward the symbiotic relationship between audiences and what they’re watching. The real-life viewers of public spectacles are as voracious in their appetites as The Viewers in Nope are for humans and horses. The two have something else in common regarding their consumptive habits, though.
Neither can stomach something fake passed off as real.
When the alien in Nope tries to eat a wooden horse midway through the film, it ends up spitting out the decoy in disgust. Viewers reacted similarly in 2009 when they found out that Falcon Heene, the 6-year old boy purportedly in mortal danger onboard a UFO balloon, had been hiding safely the whole day. Everybody who watched TV to find out in real time whether a small child would plummet to his death was furious to find out that the boy had never been in danger at all. The spectacle they were feeding on was inauthentic.
If it had been a performance-art piece, some viewers might have reflected on why they had watched for so long, and what it all meant. Because it turned out to be the work of a fame-hungry jackass trying to land his family a reality show, though, everyone just felt manipulated into wasting their time.
This incident, which neatly ties together some of Nope‘s themes, admittedly might not have crossed Peele’s mind even once in the 13 years since it happened. Consider, however, what ultimately thwarts the alien at the end of the movie. The Trojan Horse of doom that Emerald sends into its gaping maw is an inflated object meant to look like Jupe in his child-star heyday.
In other words, it’s a balloon boy.
Chew on that.