SPOILER ALERT: THE ENTIRE PLOT OF ‘NOPE’ WILL BE DISCUSSED IN THIS ARTICLE.
Jordan Peele’s films are densely constructed, with plenty of symbolism and parallel storytelling built in. On one hand, “Nope” might be his most straightforward popcorn film, but early screenings left many fans connecting the dots between the story of OJ and Em Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) on the hunt for their “Oprah shot” of aliens and the tale of a young Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, with Jacob Kim in flashbacks) avoiding certain death at the bloodied hands of a chimpanzee. While Peele rarely breaks down his works, Variety is here to analyze and contextualize these scenes.
Why is this chimp attack such a central focus in a movie about aliens?
Two key themes in “Nope” are:
1) You can’t tame a predator, and
2) Mankind will risk everything for spectacle.
To the first point, Jupe’s folly was looking at his survival from the “Gordy’s Home” massacre optimistically. When the alien seemingly presented itself as another showbiz opportunity, he mistook the first six months of feeding horses to Jean Jacket as a trainer/animal relationship — similar to the sitcom, but forgetting the consequences. Unfortunately, as OJ alluded to several times, predators can’t be tamed, so when Jean Jacket went rogue on Jupe, it was history repeating itself, and Jupe’s hubris was his downfall.
Furthermore, mankind’s obsession with spectacle was what killed both Jupe and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), the cameraman who first warned Em about the danger of chasing the perfect shot. In Jupe’s case, it was the pursuit of being the ultimate showman, despite the risk, and for Antlers it was risking it all to get the ultimate evidence of aliens. But the costs are too high when dealing with an alpha predator.
Ultimately, Jupe is earning a ton of money off of his childhood tragedy, stowing away feelings of grief in order to make thousands off of twisted tourists who want to see his macabre museum. If he can spin that tragedy into a moneymaking scheme, why not do it with Jean Jacket?
Also notable: Both animals meet their downfall because of balloons. During “Gordy’s Home,” the balloons floating from the birthday present pop due to hot stage lights, scaring Gordy and starting the violence, and leading to his own death. Later, Jean Jacket is fooled by the inflatable Jupe that Em releases, which makes it sick and ultimately fatal.
Finally, both animals show their true form right before their death, with the chimp wriggling out of parts of its costume and Jean Jacket converting from its UFO form to its natural state.
Why didn’t Gordy kill or maim Jupe?
Initially, it seems because the two rehearsed their fist bump from the show, that Gordy recognized Jupe and was less apt to tear him apart. But it also seems likely it was because Jupe was silent and didn’t make eye contact with the predator — just like the Haywoods did to avoid Jean Jacket’s pull. The tablecloth Jupe was looking through and the singular shoe he focused on saved him.
What’s up with the shoe?
Jupe’s eyeline was instead focused on the shoe of a massacred TV family member, which had fallen off and was inexplicably standing on its toe. It’s often said that people facing traumatic situations will fixate on one small element during the event, and because he stared at that rare, inexplicable happening (perhaps a bad miracle itself? an impossible shot?), he dodged eye contact. That’s ultimately why the shoe has such a place of honor in the Gordy museum, positioned in the same way he had fixated on it.
Was the chimp story based on anything in real life?
In 2009, there was a story that made national news when a TV actor chimpanzee named Travis attacked his owner’s friend when she mistakenly grabbed his Tickle Me Elmo doll. Police arrived and saved her life by shooting Travis down, much like in “Nope.” The victim was left disfigured, injuries which seemed to mirror those of Jupe’s co-star, who is abducted from Jupiter’s Claim with the rest of the tourists. You can read more about the sad story of Travis the chimpanzee here.