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John DoughertyMarch 10, 2023
Daniel Kaluuya in Jordan Peele's "Nope" (IMDB)

“Nope,” the most recent film from the horror auteur Jordan Peele, opens with the words of an angry God: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.”

This quotation, from the Book of Nahum, expresses God’s wrath against the city of Nineveh. Like Jonah before him, Nahum foretells Nineveh’s destruction as punishment for its sins, including oppression and idolatry.

Jordan Peele's “Nope” is a scorching parable for our times.

Likewise, “Nope”—which met widespread acclaim upon its 2022 release but received no Academy Award nominations—is Peele’s prophetic warning about the modern idolatry at the heart of the American empire. Our false god is the pursuit of success. Call it the hustle, call it grindset, call it Mammon; it’s a worldview that prioritizes gain above all else, that reduces human life to a desperate race to the top and people to competition or tools. In the eyes of Mammon, your gifts, your passion, your experience are only valuable insomuch as you can sell them.

“Nope” is a scorching parable for our times. Unfortunately, it is under-discussed in the discourse about this year’s best films. (If you haven’t seen it, it is currently streaming on Peacock and available to rent or own on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+).

“Nope”specifically explores how this idolatry manifests itself in the entertainment industry. From the early days of the Western, Hollywood has been an engine for repackaging the violent truths of American life as consumer-friendly spectacle. The filmis about an industry that sells pretty pictures while exploiting the labor and stories of the disenfranchised and naïve.

“Nope”is also about a ravenous alien monster—pretty much the same thing.

The film follows the siblings O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), who inherit their family’s ranch, which trains horses for Hollywood productions. They struggle financially in the face of C.G.I. replacements and an industry that doesn’t appreciate the patience needed to work with live animals. When O.J. glimpses a U.F.O. one night, Emerald sees a solution to their financial woes (and a way to jumpstart her own show biz career). Certainly there are scientific implications to the discovery, but that won’t pay the bills. Em, well-acquainted with the idol of fame and wealth, knows that it only cares about one thing: What can you sell?

From the early days of the Western, Hollywood has been an engine for repackaging the violent truths of American life as consumer-friendly spectacle.

Likewise, we spend much of our adult lives in negotiation with this question. We search for ways to monetize our talents, our knowledge, our passion. We add skills to our LinkedIn profiles, carefully weigh the wording of our résumés, considering what will make us look most attractive, most valuable. All of this is propelled by the promise that if we work hard, don’t complain and give everything we have, eventually we’ll be rewarded with the American Dream.

But the idol knows only hunger. No matter how much we feed it, it just demands more.

O.J. and Em find themselves in a literal version of this predicament when they realize the U.F.O. is not an alien spaceship. It’s an enormous alien creature (which they nickname “Jean Jacket”) that descends from the clouds to devour lone horses and unlucky hikers. It digests them for hours, then expels what’s left in a biblical rain of blood and indigestible pocket change.

We see a visceral illustration of this in a subplot involving Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), a former child star who operates a nearby rodeo. He’s stuck chasing his first taste of fame, contorting himself into increasingly degrading shapes in a bid to stay relevant. Even his trauma is grist for the content mill: He charges visitors to see an exhibit commemorating a horrifying incident he survived as a child.

Jupe attempts to tame Jean Jacket and make it into one more spectacle, the one that will finally put him back on top. Instead, the creature devours him, his family and a crowd of spectators. This is the idol’s true nature: it wants everything. When you have nothing left to feed it, it eats you.

The creature is the personification of America’s false god. It looks, at times, like a camera aperture or a staring eye, and its core is a vast mouth. It is Mammon’s insatiable appetite for spectacle. Chasing it might make the Haywoods rich or Jupe famous, but it’s more likely to chew them up and spit them out.

Jordan Peele's “Nope” reminds us that the most important things in life are not for sale.

Catholics watching “Nope” will likely recognize its bleak take on our modern idols. It is very much in agreement with religious critiques of “the world” going back to the Old Testament and the Gospels. Jesus puts it plainly in Matthew: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon” (Mt 6:24). The way of Christ is radically different from what our society values. The Jesuit priest Dean Brackley called it “downward mobility” in The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times (2004). “In the United States, upward mobility is the road to success,” he wrote. “It means hard work and initiative but also rugged individualism, the rat race, and the devil take the hindmost—with ‘the hindmost’ turning out to be disproportionately people of color.”

Downward mobility, on the other hand, invites us to radical solidarity with people on the margins and to an embrace of humility. Brackley writes: “Christ addresses us through the outcast, enticing us to share their poverty and rejection and to recognize the crucified outcast (not the celebrity paragons) as the measure of humanity.”

In “Nope,” O.J. embodies downward mobility. From the start, his priorities are family and caring for the animals under his charge. He has no interest in fame and wants money only to keep the ranch and his family’s legacy alive. You also see it in his steady love for Emerald, which shines through even in the moments where he is most frustrated with her. Like the love professed in the Gospels, it is self-sacrificial. In the climax he confronts Jean Jacket alone, facing down certain death to give his sister a chance to escape.

Relationships built on mutual love and sacrifice, care for others and the natural world, disinterest in fame and riches—these are ideas that baffle the idol, because they have no monetary value. But focusing on them is how we reject false gods and turn toward the true one. “Nope” reminds us that the most important things in life are not for sale.

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