Warning: Spoilers ahead. You can also watch the video version.
Jordan Peele has built a career on making people uncomfortable. In Get Out, he crafted a scalding take on how white supremacy and cultural appropriation can take root even among modern American progressives. In Us, he told a chilling tale of the suffering we inflict on others to ease our own pain. And in Nope, a giant alien roomba disguised as a cloud starts hoovering up humans (and horses) and digesting them—slowly.
Like his other movies, there’s a lot going on in Nope, from the oh-so-subtle commentary on how we engage with the spectacle of violence to the not-so-subtle critique of stereotypical reactions to adversity and danger. As the protagonist utters the titular word over and over during the two-hour-plus runtime, we begin to realize that Nope contains quite a few images and ideas worth saying “nope” about.
One such scene involves a chimpanzee going ballistic on the set of a children’s TV show. We watch in stunned silence as it hammers with balled fists upon a woman’s head before feasting on her unprotected face. Another scene depicts the alien’s digestive process—men, women, and children weep and scream as they slide, squeaking, through the rubbery GI tract of the monster, their cries intensifying as acidic liquid excretes onto their skin. As the creature flies around, crapping out their possessions along with rainstorms of blood, their dying voices echo through the valley like the turbines of some massive, horrifying airliner.
What I’m getting at here is that Nope is not shy about speaking the language of violence, even though Peele keeps most of the really nasty stuff offscreen.
Violence is one of the oldest and most popular storytelling conventions. Perhaps it’s so popular because it provides an easy way to shock the viewer, or because it’s the natural endpoint for most interpersonal conflict (which is the keystone of good storytelling). Or maybe it’s just fun to watch stuff go boom.
Whatever the reason, violence in movies and other media is common but not always considered a good thing by all. Some research even suggests that violent media affects how we think and act, especially in children. These studies hint at a possible correlation between violent media and desensitization leading to increasingly aggressive behaviors.
I think most people agree that unprovoked violence is usually bad. But then why do we flock to theaters for violent movies? Why do violent video games fly off the shelves? Maybe we humans are inherently violent creatures. Maybe the universe, of which we are part, is an inherently violent place. Maybe that’s what Jordan Peele was trying to say with this movie.
I can’t say for certain what he was trying to say with Nope, but I can identify a motif when I see one, and this movie’s primary motif involves destructive animals throwing the structures of civilization into chaos. It shows us just how quickly a true existential threat could consume us despite all our carefully constructed plans.
Nope achieves this by depicting nature run amok. By depicting men and women being devoured by an immense, unstoppable beast, which discards the trappings of their so-called humanity like garbage. The scenes with the chimp mirror this, grounding the threat in reality, showing that even the parts of nature we claim to understand could turn against us at any moment. Although most of us can stay safe inside our climate-controlled cubes with our TVs and refrigerators and everything else, we’re still part of the natural world, and when worse comes to worst, we’re still subject to the same rule of kill or be killed.
Peele conveys this message using the language of violence because the best way to highlight our addiction to violent spectacle is to use that same spectacle to make us uncomfortable. Plus, if he hadn’t, it might be hard to take the movie seriously. Without the violence, Nope wouldn’t be scary—it would probably be funny. I can already hear the jokes about the monster. Hell, I made one in the first few lines of this review. The idea of an amorphous organic UFO with serious butthole suction does not exactly strike fear into the hearts of anyone.
I wanted to chuckle as I typed that description. I really did. Instead, I kept catching mental glimpses of human faces crushed between fleshy, pulsating intestinal pillows. I kept hearing the blood-curdling screams as alien stomach acid spewed onto terrified faces. That scene will probably live rent-free in my brain for the rest of my life. To be honest, I kind of wish I had never seen it. And that, I think, was the point.
I watch a lot of horror movies, and they don’t usually affect me much. But this one did, and I believe it was because of the brutality of the violence. And yet the violence in Nope is not crass or showy—there are no severed heads flying around or entrails bursting from midsections. Peele doesn’t show much onscreen violence at all, but rather uses sound design and escalating tension to create the impression of bloodshed. As a result, the movie feels vicious not due to the carnage itself but due to the pain and terror of the characters. Nope shows us the suffering violence can cause, and I found myself thinking about that suffering for days afterward.
And that’s the power violence has, even in a story. It is a tool in the storyteller’s toolbox, yes, but it carries more weight than most because it can have ramifications in the real world. Look at the offensive tropes related to killing or hurting characters from marginalized communities for proof that made-up violence can cause real-life pain.
So, as a storyteller, what should you do? Should you use violence to shock and awe at the possible expense of others, or eschew it in favor of our collective mental health?
It’s a question with no easy answer. But I do believe Jordan Peele used violence with purpose in Nope. Without these brutal depictions, the movie would’ve been yet another silly creature feature, laughable in its absurdity. With the savagery on full, visceral, immersive display, however, it quickly turns into a nightmare I couldn’t look away from, no matter how much I wanted to.
I’m not saying you should never use violence in storytelling. If your story and themes demand it, as Nope’s did, knock yourself (and some of your characters) out. Just exercise caution. Do not include the spectacle of injury and death only to entertain. Make it serve a larger storytelling purpose. Because violence can hurt, even when it’s fictional.