Animals can't say nope


Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. (Engel, 88)
The idea that Friedrich Engel describes in The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man is precisely what happens in Nope. Nope is a film from 2022 directed by Jordan Peele. In the film an alien creature, which turns out to be a sort of animal, wreaks havoc in a valley in California. When this alien animal gets discovered, humans try to conquer and tame it in order to try to use the animal to make money from. The film shows multiple instances of when animal life is used as something for humans to capitalize off of. The arrival of the big and scary alien creature can be seen as a revenge of nature on humans for exploiting animals. However, in the end of Nope humans conquer this alien creature as well. In this essay, I will argue that Nope is a film that tries to make its viewers aware of the way in which contemporary society uses animal life only for the good of humans and how this treatment of animals can backfire and have destructive and deathly consequences for humans. Jordan Peele does not necessarily picks the side of the animals on the one hand or humans on the other but, with an ending open for interpretation, lets his viewers think about what side they are on.
          Nope shows multiple examples of animals that are being used for profit. Because of these multiple examples, we can argue that Jordan Peele intentionally made commodification of animals a theme of the movie. The story of Nope surrounds a brother and a sister (OJ and Emerald) who are wranglers. Their horses are being used on set for Hollywood films. In the beginning of the film there is a scene with one of their horses on a movie set, where we can see humans disregarding the needs of the horse. OJ says to the director that the horse needs a break. However, the director decides that the horse has to rehearse first and then get a break. Eventually the horse kicks one of the actresses (12:18-12:50, Nope). Another instance of an animal resisting his treatment by humans who want to exploit it is seen through flashbacks of a movie set for a children’s sitcom where a chimp has to act. The chimp gets angry and attacks and kills people who were on the set (57:38-1:03:11, Nope). A child actor, called Jupe, survives and later in life starts a cowboy theme park in the same valley where OJ and Emerald live. This valley is the same place where the alien creature appears and lives in a cloud. Jupe tries to tame the alien creature in order to incorporate it into a show for his theme park. Jupe has not learned from the incident that happened in his youth and ends up getting eaten by the alien creature (1:10:42-1:11:44, Nope).
          John Berger, in his book Why Look at Animals, writes how humans have lost a certain connection with animals throughout the course of human history. He writes: “In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them” (11). According to Berger, an important moment in human history where the connection between animals and humans started to break is when Descartes came up with the mind-body dualism view. Berger writes: “In dividing absolute body from soul, he bequeathed the body to the laws of physics and mechanics, and, since animals were soulless, the animal was reduced to the model of the machine” (11). In Nope we can see this reduction to the model of the machine constantly. The animals are being exploited without any regards for what the animals want.
          It is clear that Nope is a product of its time. In todays capitalistic society many people’s main focus in life is to make money to get rich or out of necessity to make ends meet. This focus on money becomes clear when OJ and Emerald first encounter the alien creature. The alien creature is big and scary, however their first instinct is not their safety but to film the creature and to sell the videotapes (30:21-32:45, Nope). Or later in the film when a TMZ reporter has a serious motor accident by means of the alien creature, his first response is: “Did you get that on camera?”(Nope, 1:42:55). When OJ tries to safe his life he resists, he screams: “No no. Not before you take a picture. Take a picture first!” (1:43:52-1:43:57, Nope). Jupe, who is clearly traumatized by the accident with the chimp in his youth, is using his history and trauma to make money. In his theme park he has a section dedicated to the chimp incident. He says: “This Dutch couple paid me 50k to spend the night (referring to the special section dedicated to the incident)” (20:18, Nope). All of these examples show that money is an important factor within the lives of the characters of the film. There is one instance in the film when someone questions this money driven motive of people. In a scene were OJ, Emerald and some other people are discussing how the process of filming the alien creature should take place, one person hesitantly says : “What we’re doing is important. Right? Like, what we document, it’s gonna do some good, huh? I mean, besides the money and fucking fame, like, we can save some lives. Fuck, we can even save Earth. Right?” (1:34:00-1:34:26, Nope). The person says it in a way to almost convince himself that what he’s doing has a bigger purpose then just money despite him not believing it.
          It is hard to tell if Jordan Peele’s critiques the focus of money in todays capitalistic society with depictions in Nope. However, many of the before mentioned examples depict the worries that Karl Marx had about what a capitalistic society potentially could become. With the examples mentioned we can see a commodification not only of animal life but also of safety and trauma. This commodification of everything is exactly what Marx predicted. In The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx writes: “This is the time when the very things which till then had been communicated, but never exchanged; given, but never sold; acquired, but never bought- virtue, love, conviction, knowledge, conscience, etc. – when everything, in short, passed into commerce” (12).
          Another example of where Jordan Peele depicts a critique Marx had of capitalism is in a scene filmed in a technology store. Three employers are in the scene and they all radiate that they do not want to be there. They seem bored, depressed and not engaged with their work (43:55-44:32, Nope). This scene is an embodiment of Marx thought that the division of labor would result in people becoming disengaged and bored with their job (16). Another example is that in the film a famous cameraman seems bored with his job filming movies in Hollywood. He eventually joins the project of filming the alien creature, but in the end he commits suicide because he wanted to film inside of the alien creature (1:48:27-1:50:13, Nope). This shows that he wanted to something extraordinary with his life and leave a sort of legacy instead of having a boring job. Marx would say that these people are doing ‘alienated labor.’ About this type of labor, Marx writes: “Alienated labor alienates nature from man; and alienates man from himself, from his own active function, his life activity; so it alienates him from the species” (16). Later he writes: “In the type of life activity resides the whole character of a species, its species-character; and free, conscious activity is the species-character of human beings. Conscious life activity distinguishes man from the life of activity of animals” (16). Marx claims that when humans engage in this boring labor that they become the same as animals. This observation is interesting when looking at how Nope depicts humans and animals. In the film animals are forced by humans to work, but you could argue that humans are forced to work as well, but then by the capitalistic system that they live in.
          Because of the many examples of the process of commodification and other capitalists critiques you can argue that this is a theme in the movie. However, it is unclear if Jordan Peele’s intention of this theme is to critique these aspects of capitalism himself or that he just tries to depict America’s current society as realistic as possible. If Nope is a critique of the commodification of animal life it could be seen as hypocritical that Jordan Peele himself makes use of horses in the film. However, the plot of the movie suggests that the big alien creature coming to eat people is a revenge by the animals on the humans that mistreated them. Nevertheless, the ending, in which OT and Emerald succeed in taming the alien creature and thus are able to kill it, would indicate that it is not a critique because humans end up triumphant over the alien creature/animal. By showing these contradicting motives, I would argue that Jordan Peele’s aim with Nope is to raise awareness of the current dynamics between humans and animals. The ending then, were humans conquer the creature and thus animals, could be an ending open for interpretation. The public themselves are left to decide whether this ending is a good and happy ending or the opposite.
          In this essay, I have tried to argue that the aim of Nope is to make viewers more aware of the way contemporary society treats animals. Furthermore, I have tried to show how Nope is a products of its time because it depicts many characteristic of contemporary capitalistic society. Jordan Peele shows how in contemporary society everything is becoming commodified. I have analysed many instances in the film in which we can see the commodification of trauma, safety, and most importantly animal life. Nope shows the negative consequences of this commodification and bad treatment of animals. Furthermore, I have argued that the arrival of the alien animal can be seen as a revenge of nature on these bad treatments of animals. However, with humans ending up conquering and killing the alien animal, Jordan Peele fails to pick a side. Instead, he lets his viewers free to decide whether the ending, in which humans conquer nature, can be seen as something triumphant or not.
  • Sources: Berger, John. Why Look at Animals, Penguin Books Ltd, 2009. Engel, Friedrich. The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, 1876 Marx, Karl. Estranged Labor, 1844. Marx, Karl. The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847. Nope. Directed by Jordan Peele, performances by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, Monkeypaw Productions, Universal Pictures, 2022.


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