Nope and seeing extraction

Nope is a movie with a lot to show about seeing. It’s packed full of ideas and references. It is also a great cinematic spectacle with a soundtrack to match. I watched it a few days after taking a train through landscape very similar to the Californian scrub that situates the film, and maybe that helped to underline the sense of hugeness in the film’s landscape and its alien. Definitely one to watch in a cinema.

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The alien turns out not to be a spaceship, despite its definite flying-saucer vibe, but rather a living thing. And one of the themes of the movie that I haven’t seen a lot of reviews discuss is its focus on animals. The alien itself is a sort of animal (it eats flesh and eventually develops wings) but the film also focusses on horses, a chimpanzee, and of course humans.

I think the film is divided into sections each of which is named after an animal. And there’s something going on about how different animals see, what they see and what then happens. Key moments in the film include a horse seeing its own reflection. And, in a truly terrifying scene (I thought so anyway), the camera is occupying the point of a view of a character hiding from a chimpanzee that has just savagely attacked several humans. The chimp turns its own intense gaze, noticing and focussing on that character but also directly at you in your cinema seat… the camera cuts. Wow.

While animals like horses and chimpanzees and the alien are shown as looking very directly (the alien can detect what looks at it), the film spends considerable time reflecting on all the technologies that humans use to mediate their looking: mirrors, veils, surveillance cameras, still cameras, hand-cranked film cameras, green screens, smartphones, sunglasses… and demonstrating all the ways that these falter and fail. There’s an acknowledgement of what commodification does to the images produced by those technologies; and also a deathly penalty attached to making direct eye contact with the alien. That bleak paradox is one of the film’s horrors. However you look, it seems, there are risks…

Another horror is the white alien monster extracting flesh from this landscape: horse and human. This extraction is what Daniel Kaluuya simply refuses in another of the film’s standout moments: nope, he says. One of the things I’ve learnt from reading Gray Brechin’s book Imperial San Francisco is the full extent of the massive environmental despoilation that accompanied white settler colonialism in California, and the latter’s profound racisms. The way the movie pictures the whiteness of the monster sucking up bodies and then expelling them as waste matter feels deeply metaphorical of that extractivist racism.

I know some critics dislike Jordan Peele’s films because they invite this kind of multiple interpretive reading – and certainly the readings don’t neatly line up. But – in perhaps the final paradox of this movie’s account of human visuality – the for me at least there is something so compelling about how this film looks, that the readings and interpretations do indeed stumble a little. I’m too busy looking to do too much analysis. (Are the film’s sections really named after animals?) The movie itself disrupts human looking while enticing us to look.

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