Breaking down movie references, from “Akira” to “War of the Worlds”

If you saw even a trailer for Nope, Jordan Peele’s latest mind-bending masterpiece, you know it’s a movie about movies. Not in the traditional sense, of course – there are no Technicolor dance sequences on Los Angeles freeways or send-offs of twisted Hollywood dynamics. It does, however, firmly grasp the roots of cinema and how the real origins of the craft paved the way for Nopeon multiplex screens across the country.

If that sounds a bit too meta, don’t worry. Keke Palmer explains everything perfectly in her first scene. “Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a film was a two-second clip of a black man on a horse?” Palmer’s character Emerald asks the production crew during a commercial shoot. “This man is my great-great-grandfather.” There’s supposed to be another “big” in there, as his brother, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) reminds him.

Emerald explains that the crew might know the name of the man who took these photographs, Eadweard Muybridge; inventor of the zoopraxiscope and pioneer of the first photographic movements. But they probably won’t know the name of the black horse jockey. In reality, the identity of the jockey in Plate number 626 is unknown, erased from history due to Muybridge assigning numbers to his human models instead of recording their names. Peele’s fictional twist on this story underscores that, although the camera has the ability to document, the very nature of cinema will always leave someone unseen.

Having laid its narrative foundations in the early forms of cinema from the start, Nope spends his time giving cowboy hats to various notable (and less notable) movies that came before him. Peele, in the words of a Lady Gaga, not afraid to reference or not to reference. And all along NopePeele expands on these references, weaving the audience through a history of cinema with both obvious nods and clever thematic parallels.

Warning: minor spoilers for Nope lie in front.

OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) sports his old crew swag of The Scorpion King.

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Best/Universal/Everett

The Scorpion King (2002): Maybe NopeThe most overt – and certainly the most comedic – cinematic reference is the 2002 spin-off prequel to The Mummy, The Scorpion King. It’s been at least a decade since I thought about the existence of this movie, but Nope took me back to my early training days where I was transfixed by the Rock’s mountainous, shimmering chest in this blockbuster.

The Scorpion King was largely a dud on arrival, though it was a decent enough action flick to turn the Rock into a proper movie star. According Nopehowever, that was no thanks to Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, the fictional family horse-fighting company run by OJ and assisted by Emerald after their father’s death.

When Emerald was younger, her father promised her that she could train her first horse, Jean Jacket, for a movie production. At the last second, his father reneged, taking OJ instead. The decision left Emerald feeling rejected and invisible, at least by everyone but her brother.

But in the end, it didn’t really matter: the movie the family worked on was The Scorpion King, and besides being a flop, the production ended up using camels instead. The Haywoods still have to save some candy Scorpio King crew swag, however, as seen in crucial scenes later in the film. Watch out for the DIY recreations that appear on Etsy in 3, 2, 1…

Emerald (Keke Palmer) drags the motorcycle from Akira.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Universal/Toho

Akira (1988): Here’s another obvious one you already know or have seen homage 100 times in other movies: the Akira motorcycle slide. The 1988 Japanese animated film has inspired countless writers and directors with its wildly stylish take on cyberpunk futurism. But the film’s most memorable moment is its iconic freeway lap.

In a recent trailer for Nope, eagle-eyed fans instantly recognized a quick shot of Emerald recreating the same slide, draped in yellow tape. It’s just one of many badass moments in the movie, and a fun tip of the hat from Peele, who quotes Akira as one of his favorite movies. Peele was even approached by Warner to direct an adaptation of the film, but refused it in favor of not getting bogged down in intellectual property. NopeThe inclusion of the slide is the perfect injection of IP reverence, a loving tribute that enhances Peele’s clever original content. Moreover, it’s just really fucking cool.

Nope the final act is an almost direct mirror of the climactic sequences of Jaws

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Everett

Jaws (1975): The parallels between Nope and Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking masterpiece Jaws are pretty easy to spot, once you’ve connected the dots. But what’s so great about the way Jordan Peele writes is that, even when you’ve got the similes nailed, the nuances of how they’re worked into the script continue to play out long after you’ve returned from the theater.

There are several parts of Nope which dates back to Spielberg’s filmography, but its connection with Jaws is certainly the most visible. In NopeIn the final act, the scrappy team assembled to document the alien creature terrorizing the Haywood Ranch creates an elaborate plan to hunt, catch, and stop the monster. It is an almost direct mirror of the culminating sequences of Jawswho find Quint, Brody, and Hooper on their boat the Orca, hatching a plan to hunt and kill the great white lurking in the waters near Amity Island.

Of course, there are plenty of horror and sci-fi movies that borrow the Jaws plot structure, but not all do it as cleverly as NopeThe final 40-minute tribute does. What makes the film’s climax so effective and award-winning is the way its cinematic references play on the themes introduced in its first half, refracting like light through a prism to match everything Peele tries to say with his third feature. (Besides, Jaws was also Spielberg’s third.)

Jaws did gangbuster numbers when it was released in June 1975. It became the template for the modern summer blockbuster and scared generations of bathers. Its very existence has sparked a fixation on the hunt for creatures, endangering a species essential to the ecosystem of our oceans. In Nope, Jordan Peele criticizes this kind of deadly fascination with the unknown and how this preoccupation can be triggered by cinema. The similarities between the films are no coincidence: they both use their score and sound design to keep audiences on the edge of their seats, offering brief initial glimpses of their monsters before grand and gruesome reveals.

Nope can explore several major themes, but chief among them is its commentary on our obsession with taming natural beasts and our voyeuristic compulsion to watch these attempts through the lens of a summer blockbuster. He is ready to ask us the question: what is the dividing line between documentation and exploitation – and are we made accomplices by buying a ticket?

Peele riffs Black Lagoon Creature and a classic scene from jurassic park.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Everett

Black Lagoon Creature (1954) and jurassic park (1993): Jaws himself was strongly inspired by Black Lagoon Creatureas well as a handful of other early horror films. Creature was a major moment for the advancement of underwater photography when it was released in 1954, terrifying audiences with first-person shots of the titular monster as it swam underwater, hidden in the depths after his home was overrun by researchers.

Where Spielberg removed the ability for audiences to sympathize with the monster in JawsPeele keeps it intact in Nopeto the Black Lagoon Creature. OJ posits that the creature they are dealing with does not realize it is a malevolent force on this world, acting only as a being would in the wild.

Peele once again examines our fixation on limiting animal instincts with the flashback scenes depicting a chimpanzee being forced to act in a corny 1990s sitcom. When chaos erupts, we are treated to and terrified by a scene that mimics a again the tension of Spielberg, with a nod to the jurassic park scene where raptors stalk children in the kitchen. Peele relishes the opportunity to critique our obsession with taming animals for show and wonder why we’re shocked when it doesn’t work in our favor. He does this while asking us if peaceful coexistence is possible when survival is the basic instinct of all living creatures.

Peele took blood-soaked clues from War of the Worlds, Bladeand diabolical death.

Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Everett

War of the Worlds (2005), Blade (1998), and evil Dead (2013): Just when you thought there was nothing left to exploit from Spielberg’s collection of summer blockbusters, a storm cloud forms over you. The director’s adaptation of the HG Wells novel holds up surprisingly well: it’s a great spectacle full of gruesomely memorable moments, but few are more visceral than Tom Cruise emerging from a basement near the end of the film to find the dark skies and foggy air. red with blood after alien tripods gobbled up every human in sight.

Peele takes this vision and this level of fear a step further in a pivotal sequence of Nope, raining blood on the Haywood ranch after a similar attack. The blood rain does exceptionally well here, providing an absolutely petrifying backdrop to an already tense scene. Nothing seems quite so dark as seeing blood raining down from above, which is probably why Peele borrowed the technique from the opening blood rave sequence in Blade and the climax in Sam Raimi’s 2013 remake diabolical death– two great watches if you like to be chilled to the bone watching people get covered in bodily fluids!

Any good artist can tell you that while there is plenty of room for original ideas across a wide range of mediums, it’s all been done before. What makes something innovative is how it uses the works that came before it to influence what it wants to say now.

Nope delivers its themes to audiences on a UFO-sized platter in the form of easy-to-read cinematic allusions. But instead of being crushed by lofty comparisons to beloved classics, Nope succeeds thanks to its will of reference. Peele’s inclination to launch his final showdown against formative cinematic tentpoles grows both Nopethe central ideas of everything while criticizing its inspirations with as much admiration as hesitation. The result is Peele’s first true summer blockbuster that confuses the intentions of those who came before it, making it one of the smartest popcorn movies in decades.

About Debra D. Johnson

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