‘Nope’ explained: Gordy the chimpanzee and more clues to unpacking Jordan Peele’s epic
Spoiler alert: The following story discusses plot details from Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” For spoiler-free coverage read our review here.
Jordan Peele’s enigmatic sci-fi horror film “Nope” tracks two horse-wrangling siblings who encounter an uncanny presence over their remote Southern California ranch — and leaves a provocative tangle of allegorical chills and thrills lingering in the minds of viewers.
But first, it serves up a perplexing scene of chaos, confusion and terror, just moments after an unthinkable rampage has turned a TV studio into a backdrop for carnage.
As with the filmmaker’s previous outings “Get Out” and “Us,” “Nope” offers a bounty of symbols, themes and references to chew on, even if the answers can be frustratingly (or delightfully) opaque. For some, one puzzle piece in particular raises the question: What exactly does a chimpanzee named Gordy have to do with what’s lurking in the skies in the Spielbergian summer blockbuster?
And how do aliens and chimps relate to the Nahum 3:6 quote (“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle”) that opens what Peele has called his “Great American UFO story”?
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star in an otherworldly thriller that follows in the heady and ambitious footsteps of Peele’s ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us.’
The ‘Gordy’s Home’ incident
Before we meet Daniel Kaluuya’s soft-spoken Otis Jr. “OJ” Haywood and his extroverted sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who have inherited their late father’s struggling Hollywood horse ranch in Agua Dulce, just outside of Los Angeles, Peele opens on a tableau of bloody terror on the set of a seemingly unrelated ‘90s TV show.
The fictional family sitcom is “Gordy’s Home,” and it stars a trained chimp named Gordy (played via motion capture by “Planet of the Apes’” Terry Notary) who unexpectedly snaps, violently mauling several of his human co-stars. The scene is later revealed to be a flashback in the memory of former kid actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who witnessed the brutal 1997 attack as a child and has masked his trauma from it ever since under a veneer of capitalist hustle and humor.
Ricky, his entertainment career long behind him, now runs Jupiter’s Claim, an Old West-themed attraction named after the character he played in his one and only hit film, “Kid Sheriff,” which he now milks desperately in hopes of returning to the spotlight.
He recounts the tabloid version of the tragedy with eerie detachment one day when OJ and Emerald visit to sell him yet another horse to keep their failing ranch afloat. The world still harbors a ghoulish interest in the infamous “Gordy” tragedy, and Ricky has learned to cope by selling access to morbid memorabilia to deep-pocketed fans and glorying in how Chris Kattan spoofed his childhood trauma on a popular “Saturday Night Live” sketch — the apex of pop culture relevance.
But later, in an extended flashback, we see more of his memory of that fateful day: At the end of his bloody rampage, Gordy turns to the young Ricky, who is hiding underneath a table. Moments before cops arrive to shoot the animal to death, Gordy extends his bloody hand in maybe-friendship toward the terrified boy (one might call it, ahem, a “monkey’s paw”) in what appears to be their signature fist bump.
Or does he?
Jean Jacket and the Star Lasso Experience
Later, it is revealed that Emerald, OJ and their alien-chasing amateur film crew (Brandon Perea as Fry’s Electronics tech Angel and Michael Wincott as grizzled cinematographer Antlers Holst) aren’t the only ones who have figured out that a UFO has been stalking the gulch where the Haywood ranch abuts Jupiter’s Claim.
Ricky has been secretly sacrificing the horses he’s bought from OJ to the flying disc for months, studying its behavior. Chasing the fame he lost when the world lost interest in him, he believes that the flying object is an alien ship piloted by “Viewers” who want to watch him.
Just as OJ and Emerald see in the alien creature their own chance to capture their “Oprah shot” and ride the video footage to fame and fortune, Ricky is also attempting to profit off of the unearthly spectacle. He builds a new show to exploit the phenomenon in which the UFO is the star attraction, shored up by a false sense of confidence that, since he survived Gordy’s wrath, he shares a similar communion with the extraterrestrial predator.
Introducing his new attraction, Ricky shouts out to a special guest sitting in the stands: Mary Jo, the “Gordy’s Home” co-star he once had a crush on who was badly disfigured in the on-set attack and now wears a veiled hat to obscure her scars. Although brief, this link back to Ricky’s childhood nightmare also offers another clue to the horrific real-life incident that it parallels.
In his horror/sci-fi epic, Jordan Peele has a close encounter of the Spielberg kind. Here’s our brief guide to several notable allusions.
Travis the chimpanzee (2009)
In 1995, in real life, a chimpanzee was taken from his mother as a baby and sold to Connecticut couple Sandra and Jerome Herold, who named him Travis and raised him to wear clothes, drink wine, eat at the dinner table and sleep in bed with them.
In 2009, reportedly triggered by a red Elmo doll Sandra Herold’s friend Charla Nash was holding, Travis charged Nash in a shocking mauling attack that left the woman blinded and her hands, nose, lips and face severely injured. Police responding to the scene shot the animal, who died from his injuries. The incident made international news and Nash later underwent radical face and hand transplant surgery.
Later that year she wore a veiled hat before revealing her disfigurement on a 2009 episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where she argued that potentially dangerous animals should be treated accordingly.
After OJ’s horse Lucky refuses to leave his protective enclosure to be eaten by the alien, Ricky’s former co-star is among the audience members who unwittingly fall prey to the spectacle they’ve paid to consume.
It’s also no accident that the fictional “Gordy’s Home” sitcom is set in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where in 1986 the nation watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live television, killing all aboard. To hammer the allusion home, Ricky’s onscreen mom in the “Full House”-esque show plays an astronaut, as revealed in a faux-VCR taped opening credits sequence posted by Peele.
That standing shoe clue
In a film filled with carefully curated breadcrumbs, Easter eggs, shout outs and references both fictional and drawn from the intersecting history of media consumption and race, one unexplained element in the “Gordy’s Home” flashback offers a clue to the subplot’s significance — and explains why OJ and Emerald don’t meet the same fate as Ricky and the unlucky onlookers at Jupiter’s Claim.
Unlike the footage the Haywood siblings are attempting to capture with video and hand-cranked film cameras, the “Gordy’s Home” incident is not a documented scene. Rather, it is the traumatized memory of a confused and frightened child — young Ricky — who focuses on an odd sight as he hides under a table amid the rampage.
Next to Mary Jo’s mangled body, Ricky zeroes in on one of her tennis shoes, curiously standing upright, defying physics. In the present day, he even has the shoe memorialized on his wall of mementos. But did his mind’s eye merely imagine the shoe standing impossibly in the air — and is he misremembering that just before being shot, Gordy turned to him in friendship?
Ricky’s past as a child actor exploited and then spit out by the fame machine makes him the film’s most tragic figure, and this sets him up to make the fatal mistake of underestimating a creature that’s too dangerous to wrangle.
The new film from Jordan Peele is a horror/sci-fi/western hybrid starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun.
The villainy of the spectacle
“The villain is this otherworldly threat,” Peele told GQ. “And it is also something that everyone has in common — everyone’s relationship to the spectacle.” Like Ricky — whose identity and values have been warped by the systems of commodification that permeate our lives — OJ, Emerald, Angel and Holst each have their reasons for pursuing the alien, which OJ dubs “Jean Jacket” after the horse whom Otis Sr. promised to teach Emerald to train but didn’t.
To the Haywoods, the desire to capture proof of this “bad miracle” is rooted in a family legend that echoes Hollywood’s long legacy of erasing performers and craftspeople of color from history books. As Emerald informs a disinterested white film crew on a commercial set, they are proudly descended from the unnamed Black rider in Eadweard Muybridge‘s famous 1878 photographic sequence, celebrated as the first motion picture.
Hungry to find her place in the world after being alienated from the family business, Emerald is eager for the kind of fast fame she knows can come from photographing the alien even if it places her in life-threatening danger.
Neither does OJ want to fail the legacy their father built. But like a hero in a classic western, he’s not in it for the glory. Because he sees Jean Jacket for the dangerous animal it is, he comes to respect and understand its nature rather than fall prey to it — and he is finally able to step into his father’s shoes.
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