Jordan Peele always manages to put a unique spin on familiar sci-fi tropes, and Nope is no exception, boasting a most unusual extraterrestrial.
There have been many memorable UFO designs on the big screen (I refuse to call them UAPs), ranging from Arrival’s sleek, minimalist egg, the spiky Christmas bauble of E.T., the gargantuan, grooved plate of Independence Day, and the jagged, industrial wedge that hangs over the sky in District 9.
The UFO of Nope is right up there with the best of them, an instant big screen icon. In my view, it’s best to watch Nope with as little information as possible, so if you haven’t yet seen the film, be warned:
Major Spoilers Ahead
Peele teases us throughout the film, hinting at the appearance of alien creatures piloting the ship, even managing to make a couple of kids in Halloween costumes genuinely scary (frankly, the most terrifying creature in the film is Gordy, the rampaging chimp).
It’s difficult to inspire terror through the concept of an alien invasion – War of the Worlds was published several years before the airplane was invented, and we’ve have had plenty of time to get used to the idea. The question of why aliens are colonizing worlds, why they don’t simply send drones to do the dirty work, or how they could possibly be beaten by a bunch of earthbound primates makes it difficult to take the concept seriously (although, Signs successfully managed to play it straight).
But the twist of Nope is that the ship itself is the alien creature, whose sole motivation seems to be hunger. Although, much like the entity at the center of Annihilation, its true nature remains a mystery; it might have the emotional complexity of an amoeba, or perhaps there’s something else going on, under its rippled surface.
There’s just enough ambiguity to make it interesting, while the design of the creature feels both familiar and otherwordly; sometimes, it appears biomechanical, other times as fluid and organic as a jellyfish – it spends most of the movie shaped like a typical flying saucer, doubling as a cowboy hat.
Like the repulsive facehugger from Alien, the creature vaguely resembles a sentient slab of human genitalia, later shapeshifting into a more abstract, flowing shape which resembles a ballroom gown, or a blooming flower. As it enlarges and expands, it grows more mysterious, seemingly attempting to communicate (or threaten) via bright colors; as nature constantly reminds us, vibrant colors are a sure sign of a sharp sting, or poisonous bite.
According to this fantastic Thrillist interview with the engineering professor who helped design the creature, the beast was largely inspired by sea life, with a blend of other inspirations that help push it into the realm of the uncanny.
The creature has been compared to an angel from the Evangelion anime series, or even a Biblically accurate angel; intriguingly, the film never outright states that the creature is actually extraterrestrial – it might well be an ancient earthling.
Regardless, the creature still behaves like a UFO, and its big abduction scene is genuinely terrifying, up there with the infamous abduction from Fire in the Sky. Nope sees the creature hoover up a crowd who were expecting to be entertained; instead, they are forced inside the creature’s … mouth? Which looks unsettlingly like an anus, and might well be both – let’s just call it an “orifice.”
The interior of the creature is a claustrophobic nightmare, mangled bodies squeezed through tubes that have the texture of an inflatable bouncy castle, but with a slick, greasy glimmer; judging from the cries of its prey, the putrid passages are filled with acidic juices.
As the saucer skims through the sky, accompanied by a symphony of desperate screams, it’s either keeping the crowd alive for a horribly long time, or replaying the sound, perhaps in an attempt to attract others. Either way, it’s like a roller-coaster from Hell.
Like Peele’s previous works, Nope is rich with metaphor; the creature appears to represent the danger of treating the natural world as a commodity and source of entertainment. The film is explicitly clear about this – the very first scene sees the aforementioned “trained” chimp, Gordy, going on a murder spree after being triggered by a popped balloon; it’s obvious that the showrunners didn’t view the animal with the respect, and fear, it deserves.
The film’s protagonists, (Daniel Kaluuya as OJ, and Keke Palmer as Emerald) are horse wranglers; OJ emphasizes the importance of engaging with animals on their own terms, and later understands that the UFO creature hates eye contact. One of the earliest scenes in the film sees OJ’s horse lash out after being stressed by a film crew who don’t care to prioritize the animal’s wellbeing.
Later, it is revealed that the alien creature was only attracted to that location by Jupe (Steven Yeun), who has been feeding it horses in an attempt to tame it, and of course, monetize it. Jupe is the only survivor from Gordy’s massacre, and seemingly, didn’t learn a thing.
Like Jupe, OJ is also attempting to monetize his experience with the creature, but he understands that the beast needs to be approached with deference; by trying to understand the beast’s behavior, OJ emerges triumphant, his sister snapping the million-dollar photo they need.
But perhaps the creature is more than just a beast; at one point, Jupe refers to the alien species as “viewers” – later, the creature reveals its eye, which resembles an old-fashioned camera lens. Like the hungry, shuffling zombies of Dawn of the Dead, Nope’s creature seems to be a metaphor for mindless consumption, an all-seeing eye constantly searching for stimuli, an audience hungry for content. The creature is as discerning an eater as Pac-Man, munching on whatever it is offered – which proves to be its undoing.
Despite its intimidating mass and ceaseless appetite, the creature is as delicate as the gentle sea creatures that inspired it, taken down by a large, helium-filled balloon that would otherwise find its way to the bottom of the ocean, and likely choke whatever creature that happened to take a curious bite.
The death, or defeat, of the thing is almost tragic, like watching a razor-toothed shark taken down by a harpoon; dangerous, yes, but likely one of the last of its kind.