‘Nope’: There is Something Off in Agua Dulce

Veronica Phillips reflects on 'Nope' and its depiction of California life, and the haunting worlds of bland hills and blinding lights.

Monkeypaw Productions

I have lived in California for most of my life — first in Southern California, then in Northern California. I have spent much time traveling between the two, and I despise the final stretch of the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles at night. In the half-hour or so outside of Los Angeles, it feels like you are nowhere. Dry, yellowy hills that feel romantic in the daytime give off a haunting barrenness that is occasionally punctuated by flashing red lights on ugly metal frames or bright stadium-type lights that look out into seeming nothingness. I have to presume that these serve some purpose for farmland or something bland and industrial, but they have a look of clinical evilness to them; there is an uncanniness in their loneliness at night.

The repeated sentiment of Nope is that there is something off in Agua Dulce, Los Angeles County. I understand this off-ness; it resonates with me, runs parallel to those sad, dark hills and strange lights. In fact, when things start going awry at Haywood Hollywood Horses ranch, lifelong horse trainer OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) looks out at a similar set of chilling, cold, bland stadium lights and sad-looking hills on the night when one of his trained horses starts running for the hills, seemingly at random.

Perhaps what is so haunting is how close these worlds of bland hills and blinding lights (and their potential to hold the scary, inexplicable, and extraterrestrial) are to Los Angeles in all of its highly populated, warmly lit, historically glamorous glory. These two spaces sit so near to each other, but they feel so spiritually far apart.

There is so much to be said about Nope. There is so much that has been said about Nope. This brief write-up could be about the nature of animals: as predators, as things distanced but then tamed by humans, as docile. This could be about siblings. This could be about the gargantuan collapsing in of genre that the film handles: a Spielberg-y monster movie turned Western turned alien film turned Hollywood introspection. 

What draws me in to Nope on my two watches, though, is the way it feels like a movie about those a couple of paces away from Hollywood (literally and figuratively). Our characters are those who have already been churned or elbowed out of the machine in one way or another, who are close enough to smell the off-ness of the system, to point out that something is indeed fishy without benefitting from the fucked-up Hollywood machine.

OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) have been a couple of paces away from the movies since birth — their ancestor was the man apparent in the first ever documented “moving picture” by Eadweard Muybridge, who is now unknown save for within family lore. Their trained horses were, at one point, in all of the glitzy, glamorous films. But Emerald cannot get work, even as a multi-hyphenate — her skills ranging from acting to producing to craft services — and one horse’s small misstep means OJ is fired from a project.

Near their ranch is Jupiter’s Claim, a Wild West-styled theme park run by ex-child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), whose onscreen career seems to have been cut short by his ties to the sitcom Gordy’s Home. The show itself was cut short when the protagonist, a chimpanzee, went feral at the sound of a burst balloon during a shoot and brutally mauled most of the cast, save for a hidden Ricky. The event both haunts Ricky in frequent flashbacks and is a central (but secret) opportunity for capitalization for him: he collects memorabilia in a special hidden room to show to people invested in the niche, gory story.

These people are a part of the Hollywood machine but they are not defined by it, central to it, or thriving in it. When a monstrous, territorial, and hungry alien-type being arrives in the skies of Agua Dulce (or, at least, becomes apparent, as it seems to have been able to hide in the clouds for quite a long while without anyone noticing), Emerald and OJ smell a chance at capturing a spectacle and making it — maybe even appearing on Oprah.

It turns out that being at a distance from the soul-sucking nature of modern Hollywood spectacle is ultimately protective. Those that try and capitalize on it and those that sit within the movie-making beast are most at risk of being consumed by this alien force, more so than Emerald and OJ are in their half-baked attempts to get some footage of the alien they nickname “Jean Jacket” after an old horse of theirs.

Ricky’s discovery of the extra-terrestrial being and his subsequent capitalization on it — it’s another horrific and awe-inspiring thing that he sees an opportunity to make money from — gets him and his spectators swallowed up whole at his theme park. Then, a man from TMZ arrives, ready to get a great and all-powerful piece of footage, but he, too, gets eaten for his greedy ways. And, lest we claim that the alien only swallows up those interested in tacky spectacle, famous cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) goes down in a blaze of artistic glory with his camera in hand, dying for a great animal documentary shot of the alien. Those who are artistic and those who are sell-outs are at equal risk of being swallowed whole if they are functioning comfortably within the Hollywood machine.

The only tangible evidence we get of Jean Jacket ends up being not film footage after all but a Polaroid-style photo of the beast flying above Jupiter’s Claim. A film about moving images, touching on its very beginnings hundreds of years ago, is reduced to a standstill in a single image at the end. Spectacle stood still. Is it the “Oprah shot” the siblings were aiming for? Maybe, maybe not. But as Emerald and OJ make eye contact across the dusty, destroyed remains of a campy theme park, I sense they survived because they are far away enough from the need for spectacle, entertainment, and Hollywood to know that there is more to life than all that.

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