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Jordan Peele's New Movie Borrows From Other Films. Does That Make It Derivative? Nope

A man in an orange hoodie sits on top of a horse in a rough terrain, with dust kicked up behind him
Daniel Kaluuya stars in Jordan Peele's sci-fi thriller Nope.
(Universal Pictures)
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Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery.

In Hollywood, it’s also a business model.

After Die Hard was a big hit in 1988, many movies were built around the idea of “It’s Die Hard, but in a …”

Some examples out of many: Speed is Die Hard but in a … bus. Air Force One is Die Hard but in an … airplane. Olympus Has Fallen is Die Hard but in ... the White House. And last and unquestionably least, I know of an especially astute producer who actually pitched Die Hard but in an … office building, which, of course, is …Die Hard.

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All that said, it’s one thing to clone movies. And quite another to pay homage to them. Which is exactly what filmmaker Jordan Peele has done with his new film, Nope.

The Internet is full of posts from Nope gumshoes, identifying and aggregating what are known as “Easter eggs”: visual references, camera angles, even wardrobe choices that could be — and often were, as Peele told me — inspired by another movie.

A shot of a cyclone headed toward a farmhouse — and the detritus that falls from the sky — mirrors a scene in The Wizard of Oz. The design of an alien spaceship calls to mind the 2016 movie Arrival. There’s a motorcycle trick that’s patterned after the same move in 1988’s anime film Akira.

One of my favorite assumptions, even if it’s a big stretch: Michael Wincott, who plays the film’s cheeky cinematographer, Antlers Holst, is channeling Robert Shaw’s performance in Jaws.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

The lists are fun, but they miss the larger point: for all of Peele’s inspirations, the story he’s telling is not only fully original but also intentionally fills a long-running cinematic omission: a Black-led alien story. “We’ve had years of not feeling fully represented in one of our favorite genres,” Peele told me.

It doesn't require a lot of sleuthing to spot one of Peele’s most obvious Nope influences. There’s even a poster for the film prominent in the background of one long scene. The movie is 1972’s Buck and the Preacher.

“And that did send me on a bit of a ride in reckoning with Black filmmakers in the erasure of the past and an erasure of Black joy from the Hollywood narrative. Most cowboys were black, but you wouldn’t [know that] from the Hollywood narrative of the Western. We weren't portrayed anymore. And so yes, that film is both significant as a spiritual connection to my film, but it's also part of the hidden Hollywood history.”

The movie, directed by and starring Sidney Poitier opposite Harry Belafonte, is not only a David vs. Goliath tale (just like Nope) but also a Black-led genre film (just like Nope).

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“I felt a certain responsibility to be ambitious,” Peele said, who was working with a budget more than 10 times greater than his first feature, Get Out.

As my 17-year-old son (who scares easily) said after we saw the film together, “That wasn’t very scary.” That would be music to Peele’s ears, who more than anything wants Nope audiences to “have fun.”

We’ve had years of not feeling fully represented in one of our favorite genres
— Jordan Peele, Director of "Nope"

Still, Peele doesn’t think moviegoers need a post-pandemic break from stories, like Nope, that posit that bad things are right around the corner — or are hiding up in the clouds. If they want to escape, Peele said, they can watch Nope as nothing more than entertainment, or not even go to a movie theater should they choose.

“I think people always have a need to exorcise our demons in a way,” Peele said. “And people go at it in different ways. Some people do it with television, some people do it with books. The news might be horrible, but some people do well with the news. It's however we repress our fears to the point where I think we need an outlet.”

For all of his homages and references, Peele certainly isn’t making a sequel, remake, spinoff, reboot or prequel, like everyone else is. How many of the Top 8 films at the box office this year fall into that Xeroxing strategy? Small hint: All of them.

Nope opened with very good ticket sales of $44.4 million at the multiplex two weekends ago. Yet attendance plunged nearly 60% this past weekend, as Nope was surpassed by DC League of Super-Pets. So if you really care about original, distinctive voices, buy a ticket for Nope. Because the more money all of the real copycats take in, the harder it becomes for Peele and his unconventional peers.

ABOUT THE RETAKE PODCAST
  • Hollywood is going through a time of unprecedented change. But do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on? Each week, host John Horn explores this unique moment — which some call a golden age of storytelling — in his new podcast, Retake, from LAist Studios. You can hear his critical, informed perspective on what’s happening in entertainment while discovering innovative artists, and catching his recommendations of things to see and watch.

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John Horn covers the business of entertainment, examining what's next for Hollywood post pandemic.