The theme of exploitation is evident in Nope’s multiple references to a classic film. Not Jaws, The Goonies, or Close Encounters, or any of the Western films nodded at in the final standoff. For me, the film’s message is clear in the ways it points us back down the Yellow Brick Road, to The Wizard of Oz.
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Many reviews of Jordan Peele’s latest film, Nope, explore the theme of spectacle and our collective inability to look away. This view is supported by the film’s opening Bible verse, the main characters’ pursuit of an “Oprah shot” to secure their moment in the spotlight, a main character’s being named OJ, and a secondary character’s experience with grisly childhood fame.
I totally buy the reading of the film as an allegory for our Insta-TikTok-sound bite-Hollywood-obsessed culture and the shiny, phony, often disturbing images that capture our collective attention. But I think that’s just the surface.
More specifically, I think, Peele’s movie is about exploitation, the way that Hollywood and our larger culture – like the alien in the movie – swallow, chew up, and spit out children, people of color, and animals to serve their own needs. The villain isn’t just the viewer; it’s the entertainment machine.
The theme of exploitation is evident in the movie’s multiple references to a classic film. Not Jaws, The Goonies, or Close Encounters, or any of the Western films nodded at in the final standoff. For me, the film’s message is clear in the ways it points us back down the Yellow Brick Road, to The Wizard of Oz.
Here are the references that stand out for me:
- Emerald’s name leads right to Emerald City. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Emerald, played by Keke Palmer, has an elusive, magical goal that she pursues with the help of three men (though it could be argued that she possesses most of the group’s courage, brains, and heart).
- When Ricky “Jupe” Park’s children dress as simian/alien creatures to spook Emerald and OJ, their movements are eerily similar to the Witch of the West’s Flying Monkeys (arguably the scariest movie villains of all time).
- Another monkey-ish reference is that Jupe (Steven Yuen), a former child actor, survived an attack by a chimp named Gordy who killed and/or maimed all his co-stars. Obviously, a chimp is not a monkey, but I think the allusion holds.
- In Wizard, characters famously are directed to “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Characters in Nope must divert their gaze from the alien in order to survive.
- And Jupe orchestrates an Oz-worthy humbug of his own via his Star Lasso show, promising entertainment and delivering mayhem. He even uses a curtain to distract his audience’s attention.
- Jupe’s entire family and audience are swept away in a dusty cloud, very much like the tornado that carries Dorothy and her house to Oz.
Nope offers a few more Oz-ish allusions, some of which may be stretching things a bit:
- The inflatable dancing props that Emerald and her brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) use as decoys are arranged in a rainbow pattern (as in “Somewhere Over the …”).
- Balloons abound: Gordy the chimp’s rampage is sparked when a balloon pops on set; Jupe’s theme park Jupiter’s Claim features a balloon of himself as Kid Sheriff; and those aforementioned dancing people are basically balloons. Professor Marvel takes off in a hot air balloon in the middle and at the end of Oz.
- Peele’s reported working title for the film was “Little Green Men.” Everything in the Emerald City is green, and the Munchkins are little men (and women).
- Dorothy and her friends enter Oz in a carriage drawn by a “horse of a different color.” The aptly named Lucky in Nope, as the only horse to survive, lives up to the metaphor.
Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in MGM’s movie, was perhaps the most exploited child actor in history. Nope offers a parallel in Jupe, a former sitcom star who trades on his trauma and his brief stint as a character called Kid Sheriff. Like many child stars, Jupe has an inflated sense of himself that takes literal form in that enormous Kid Sheriff balloon he erects at Jupiter’s Claim. He’s enshrined his own history, charging fans who make morbid pilgrimages to view his sitcom mementos.
Despite having been exploited as a child (and having his horror played for laughs by SNL), Jupe ends up using his own children, both to scare OJ and as props in his Star Lasso show. He also includes his former child co-star in the Star Lasso show, exposing her disfigurement for the crowd’s entertainment. Nope presents a movie and TV business that eats children alive, terrifying them and destroying their bodies, their spirits, and ultimately, their lives.
Animal actors in Nope don’t fare much better. Gordy the chimp is dressed up and set up as a punchline before being terrified by a balloon and ultimately shot in the head. A horse named Lucky is unceremoniously replaced with CGI after scaring the cast and crew of a movie OJ is working on. Jupe offers horses as snacks for the alien as part of the Star Lasso show. Jupe should know better, having survived Gordy’s attack by remaining quiet and still and showing deference to the chimp.
Jupe’s behavior toward animals is contrasted with that of OJ and his father, horse whisperers who allow their animals to take the lead. OJ’s close study and respectful treatment of Lucky reveals the secret to surviving the alien: avoiding direct eye contact. Dorothy, like OJ, advocates for her animal companion, balking at handing Toto over to mean Miss Gulch, protecting him from the Cowardly Lion, and sacrificing her own safety to help Toto escape from the Wicked Witch. (“Run, Toto! Run!”)
One of the first images Nope offers is a real-life famous set of stills of a jockey on horseback, whom Emerald and OJ claim as their ancestor. The man in the image, photographed by Eadweard Muybridge, is a stand-in for other anonymous, overlooked, forgotten, and sidelined actors, as well as the scores of others who contributed their images, talents, work, and lives to our film history, culture, and country, often without recognition or compensation.
The Munchkins, though among the most memorable cast members of Oz, were uncredited in the film, as were the Winkies and Flying Monkeys. (However, Terry, the dog who played Toto, got a screen credit and reportedly was paid more per week than many of her cast members, according to NPR’s 2014 tribute.) OJ is similarly anonymous on the movie set where he works as a wrangler, ignored by the cast and crew and ultimately dismissed when he’s no longer seen as useful.
Like a giant tornado, or an alien dust cloud, the fame-and-fortune machine consumes those who chase it, as well as those who get caught in its wake. The echoes of Oz in Nope’s swirly, colorful, frightening fever dream underscore its powerful indictment of the entertainment industry and Hollywood’s annihilating appetites.
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All images are screenshots from the films discussed.