Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of Jordan Peele’s Nope. Yes, prepare for spoilers.
When sitting down to watch a Jordan Peele horror flick, two things are pretty much guaranteed. First, the film will almost definitely explore a cutting, eerily relevant social issue (think: the chilling realities of contemporary race relations in Get Out or the unnerving nitty-gritty of American capitalism in Us). And second, it will leave you with a lot of questions.
Peele’s most recent endeavor, Nope, might be his most thought-provoking. The film follows OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), two young heirs to a Hollywood horse-wrangling business. The siblings’ lives are turned upside down when a carnivorous UFO, whom they nickname “Jean Jacket” after a family horse, starts to terrorize their family ranch.
Confident in their wrangling chops, OJ and Emerald decide to remain on the farm and get the perfect shot of Jean Jacket – an “Oprah shot,” they call it, that will hopefully make them millions. In the third act of Nope, OJ tricks the entity into flying into perfect view of cinematographer Antlers’ (Michael Wincott) camera. But after that, things don’t quite go to plan. In search of the perfect golden hour shot, Antlers risks it all to climb to the top of a hill, where he is in plain view of Jean Jacket. He is then quickly swallowed whole. From there, things go totally haywire, and the Haywoods are left fleeing for their lives.
While on the run, OJ looks right at Jean Jacket in the hopes that it will distract the UFO long enough for Emerald to get somewhere safe. Meanwhile, Emerald escapes to the local theme park, “Jupiter’s Claim,” where Jean Jacket eventually follows her. There, she simultaneously defeats it by releasing a giant balloon into the air that it then eats and chokes on, and snags that perfect shot as it flies over an old-fashioned camera in the park. To add to this happy ending, after the dust clears, OJ heroically shows up on a horse. Roll credits.
At first glance, Nope reads like the perfect sci-fi/Western mashup. A hungry UFO shows up on a ranch, and the cowboys use their extensive knowledge of animals to take it down. But on closer inspection, Nope is a lot more than that. In many ways, it’s also a film about the dangers of Hollywood exploitation.
To truly understand this underlying theme, you first have to understand the character of Ricky (Steven Yeun): the owner of Jupiter’s Claim. As a kid, Ricky was the star of a sitcom that featured a chimpanzee named Gordy. During one episode, a balloon popped and scared Gordy, causing him to have a violent outburst and kill multiple members of the cast. However, Gordy spared Ricky – and even reached out for a fist bump before the cops shot him in the head.
Because Gordy seemingly spared Ricky’s life, Ricky is under the impression that he has some sort of understanding with nature; that he can somehow master the beast. So when Jean Jacket comes to town, Ricky immediately relates it to his experience with the chimp and brings in an audience to watch the UFO gobble up a horse, thinking they won’t be in danger because he knows how to tame the giant.
But Jean Jacket quickly proves him wrong. The UFO descends on Jupiter’s Claim and devours the entire audience. Not only is this a terrifying scene, but it is also a shrewd comment on the media’s eagerness to exploit any and everything in its path. Back on the sitcom, Gordy killed all of those people because he was an animal who wasn’t meant to be tamed but was exploited for the sake of views until he finally snapped. Furthermore, the chimp didn’t intend to spare Ricky’s life. In fact, the only reason the child survived was that he was looking away from Gordy at a shoe that was balanced upright on set and because when the chimp approached, a tablecloth was covering Ricky’s eyes. So, by chance, he wasn’t looking the wild animal in the eyes, and that is essentially the only reason he made it to adulthood.
Jean Jacket is also a wild animal, and the only people in Nope who are really equipped to deal with them are OJ and Emerald due to their extensive experience with wrangling. Unlike Ricky, they know that the only way to avoid getting swallowed whole is to avoid eye contact with the beast.
But Peele takes this metaphor a step further by suggesting that, even though they know that wild animals shouldn’t be messed with, OJ and Emerald are still intent on getting that One Perfect Shot. Indeed, after working in Hollywood for so long, the Haywoods know that the only way to get ahead in this sinister machine is to become a part of it.
But Peele’s view of OJ and Emerald’s quest for the “Oprah shot” isn’t necessarily a cynical one. Nope’s opening credits start with the first film ever made: a clip of a man on a horse filmed by Eadweard Muybridge in 1887. When we first meet Emerald, she points out that the man on the horse is Black and reveals that he is also her great, great, great grandfather.
What’s the significance of this? Well, Emerald notes that Black people have had “skin in the game” ever since the birth of cinema, a fact which is often overlooked by Hollywood – especially within the genre of horror. But with his past three films, Peele has played a significant part in helping change that, aiding Black horror to become more mainstream. And so when Emerald finally gets the perfect shot of Jean Jacket, she isn’t just hoping for a money-making shot. No, she is looking to continue her family legacy in cinema and ensure that future generations remember the contributions she and her family made.