In the beginning, God gave mankind dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals of the earth, and every creeping thing.
And ever since the beginning, we have done a lousy job with that charge. Those fish swim in polluted water, the birds get pureed in our wind turbines, the cattle become our unhappiest meals, the wild animals simply cease to exist, and the creepy crawly creatures are promptly stomped upon. If this were a fair workplace, we’d have been fired long ago. Luckily, we are God’s children and coast by on nepotism.
After centuries of abject cruelty to animals, the pendulum has mercifully swung in the opposite direction. But as any jaded 1970s suburban housewife will tell you, there is such a thing as swinging too far. While humanity has become far more affectionate to the animal kingdom, affection isn’t the same as respect.
The tendency is now toward anthropomorphism; that is, the reading of human traits into nonhuman creatures or objects. Decades of Disney films have trained us to see animals as mere extensions of ourselves, hence the attention we give our “fur babies.” Even the pope, with a whiff of exasperation, had to remind his flock that a dog isn’t a substitute for an actual child.
Jordan Peele’s recent film, “Nope,” is a healthy corrective to this mentality. While the trailers paint it as a sci-fi horror flick, Peele directs our attention to the alien mind of our fellow earthlings, the animal. In doing so, he retraces the dividing line between man and beast.
The film opens with a quote from an oft-neglected prophet of the Bible, Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.” That introduces an apocalyptic pall over the rest of the proceedings, the promised reckoning hanging like the sword of Damocles.
The film then cuts to the flashback aftermath of a cheesy 1990s sitcom called “Gordy’s Home,” where the titular Gordy, a chimpanzee, has broken training and attacked the cast. Decked in an ignoble birthday hat and pajama get-up, the chimp snarls furiously while splattered in blood. Nahum’s prophecy seems immediately fulfilled, as we see that Gordy’s life as a comedic doll has only funneled his rage. Importantly, Gordy spares one cast member from his wrath, the child actor Jupe.
Next, we meet the present-day Haywood siblings, OJ and Em, who train and handle horses for Hollywood productions. Although some 30 years have passed since the Gordy incident, we see that the industry hasn’t internalized any lessons. Cast and crew ignore OJ’s warnings to give the horse space and not look it in the eye, and instead provoke it into nearly kicking an actress. Unlike the filmmakers, the siblings recognize that animals operate from their own set of rules and that working with them is negotiating those principles to align with the objective at hand.
When OJ spots a UFO in the sky back at the ranch, he conspires with his sister to snap a picture and reap a much-needed payday. But in their photographic pursuit, OJ realizes that what he thought was a ship piloted by aliens turns out to be an alien itself, a flying jellyfish-like creature who is unfortunately carnivorous. OJ made the same mistake as his employers: projecting bipedal intelligence onto a creature of its own principle.
Jupe, now an adult, owns a western theme park adjacent to the Haywood’s horse ranch. Still traumatized by his experience, he believes it was a special, personal connection to Gordy that saved him. That vanity is necessary for his continued sanity, but ultimately dooms Jupe. He also thinks the flying alien is a ship and, believing he’s communicating with sapient intelligence, starts making “gifts” of horses to the creature, purchased from the unsuspecting Haywoods. He mistakes it for a partnership, but it is the equivalent of tying up a goat for a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
When Jupe makes the fatal mistake of making entertainment out of the bargain, he inadvertently repeats history: the alien is his new Gordy, a wild being operating on an entirely foreign logic from his own, and one that doesn’t quite like performing for an audience. The consequences ultimately echo Nahum’s grisly warning.
“Nope” is a story about the revenge of the spectacle, where the various “show animals” turn the tables on their human overlords. As with the epigraph, there are hints of divine retribution. Peele reportedly modeled his creature off the aliens from the anime “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” themselves inspired by biblical descriptions of angels. The flying menace certainly resembles an avenging messenger from the Lord: At one point, it spews out the refuse of previous victims onto their house in crimson rain, quite literally casting “abominable filth” upon them.
Those who survive the climactic encounter do so not by acting like masters or victims, but stewards. They respond based on its behavior and logic, not their own. The creature’s ultimate defeat is a reminder that animals are still subject to human dominion. Rather than simple kingship, God gave us the brains to outwit each of our subjects. It’s less monarchy than Viking fiefdom, and every day we must bat down challengers.
“Nope” blends several genres, from science fiction to horror and even western. Yet one label that doesn’t belong is “monster movie.” The term “monster” implies malicious intent, but how can a creature be evil if it doesn’t share our morality?
A line from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” says it best: “People talk sometimes of a bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do.”
Scholars have long wrangled over the distinction between man and beast. Tools? Language? “Fast & Furious 9” films? Peele suggests the true difference can be found in expectation: To whom much is given, much is expected. Man is the only animal rational enough for moral obligation. If humans are the only animals capable of good, then it follows that we are also the only animals capable of evil. In the end, our irresponsible stewardship creates our own monsters.