NOPE*CUT TO THE CHASE*
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by DissedHerb
As the movie opens, we are looking at a pre-digital age TV stage where a gruesome event has happened. A woman is lying motionless as a chimpanzee casually walks around with blood all over its body. It begins to walk toward the camera as the scene cuts to black.
Flash forward to the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch, where Otis Haywood, Sr. (Keith David), is prepping for the day with his son, Otis Jr. (known as OJ, played by Daniel Kaluuya). While Otis is riding one of their horses in its pen, small objects like keys begin to plummet from the sky. OJ turns to see his father motionless on the horse, eventually falling off. As he drives Otis to the hospital, OJ grows increasingly scared of what just happened. Otis dies, and it turns out a falling nickel killed him.
(The movie then breaks into chapters, named for non-human characters in the film)
Six months after Otis’s death, OJ is on set with show horse Ghost for a project led by filmmaker Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). OJ is waiting for his sister Emerald (known as Em, to keep up with the letter names, played by Keke Palmer), who is much better at the PR than he is. Em arrives very late and, despite already being cast and on set, uses the opportunity to educate the primarily white crew about the first documented motion picture by Eadward Muybridge depicting a black man riding a horse. The jockey in that motion picture is their great-grandfather. The Haywoods train their horses for film shoots, but since Otis Sr.’s death, Em and OJ have been struggling to make ends meet.
Em finishes her impassioned speech and goes to chat with someone as the shoot continues. OJ becomes nervous as more people arrive on set. As a production assistant sets up a prop, Ghost sees its reflection and kicks back, almost hitting the star of the project. OJ, Em, and Ghost are removed from the set.
The two visit a small theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, run by Ricky (Steven Yeun), a former child actor. The fairgrounds feature a nostalgic film photo op called the “Winking Well” that captures an upward view of the participant capturing the photo, which prints out on an 8×10 (this Polaroid moment becomes significant later). In his office, Ricky tells the story of the intro, when he was on the set the day the chimpanzee (named Gordy) went literal apeshit and attacked everyone on stage. It broke Ricky’s heart as a child because Gordy was his costar, and they were the first mainstream duo to feature the “exploding fist bump” on screen. Ricky goes on to talk about how Saturday Night Live recreated the sketch with Chris Kattan as Gordy, Ana Gasteyer, and Cheri Oteri as his costars. Ricky doesn’t give many details about how he intends to use their horses, and OJ leaves. That night, OJ investigates strange noises from the barn and encounters a short Roswell-looking alien character. When two more show up, and one attacks him, OJ knocks it down, revealing Ricky’s kids, there to send a message not to mess with Jupiter’s Claim.
Later that night, all the power goes out as OJ sees a strange object flying through the sky at the same time that some horses go missing. To prove it is an alien, he and Em go to a Fry’s electronic store, where they meet Angel (Brandon Perea) and discuss taking a video of the alien to sell. Angel overshares that he is recently out of a relationship, which explains more his desire for human interaction. They have Angel set up the cameras on top of the house and elsewhere on the ranch. At one point, they discuss the concepts of UFOs (modern term UAP for Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) and aliens. After setting up the cameras, OJ sets up a decoy horse with a pennant banner tied around it. The alien approaches and shuts down the ranch surveillance camera. Unfortunately, a praying mantis lands on the lens of the house camera, blocking the view of the ship, and sucking up the decoy. It flies away with the pennants dragging out of its maw.
Ricky prepares for a show at Jupiter’s Claim featuring a horse in a glass box. When OJ sees that it is Clover, one of his horses, he waits to see what is about to happen. For the show, Ricky explains that “for the last six months” (since Otis Sr.’s death), they have been putting on the spectacle of the horse being devoured by “something.” Though he doesn’t specify it as an alien, this explains the Roswell costumes his kids wear and the same-themed merchandise they sell. After introducing his kids and wife, Ricky calls out his first love, the woman who was attacked by Gordy, the chimp. She is sitting in the audience, her veiled face unrecognizably mangled.
The strategy is to use the act to attract the alien, then sell the merchandise since it shuts down technology, preventing anyone from recording it. Ricky notices the inflatable tube men deflating early, signaling the approach. He awkwardly tells the audience that the “something” is early as it approaches the arena. With the pennants in tow, the alien begins to suck up everybody from the audience, as well as Ricky and his family.
OJ hesitantly approaches Clover to get it out of there. After loading it into the truck, OJ attempts to drive away, but the alien gives chase, eventually spitting out the decoy horse into the truck. OJ realizes some things – the UFO is not the ship; it’s the alien, which spat out all the metal objects that killed Otis, Sr. when Ricky first moved into town and set up Jupiter’s Claim. The alien’s appetite for living flesh has grown from horses to humans, and it only eats what looks into its maw.
In a flashback, Young Ricky (Lincoln Lambert) sits on stage as a live taping of the show is being shot. Gordy (Terry Notary) suddenly and without warning begins attacking absolutely everyone on stage, as Ricky looks on in horror from beneath the set table. Gordy finishes killing one actor before coming over to hit the young girl one last time. He then sees Ricky hiding under the table and offers him a bloody fist bump. As Ricky reaches out his fist for the chimp, Gordy is shot in the head, and his blood spatters onto the tablecloth and Ricky’s face. The untold origin of Jupiter’s Claim suggests that Ricky has been leading animals to slaughter by this extraterrestrial for profit for a long time since he could no longer profit from the recreations of Gordy’s rampage.
OJ, Em, and Angel discuss the details of a technology-blocking extraterrestrial and how to capture it on camera. They call up Holst, who remembers them from the blown shoot earlier. Holst is a career wildlife videographer who knows how to capture what Em calls “The Oprah Shot.” Holst agrees to help with the project.
Em shares a story with OJ about how she was promised a horse, Lucky, by her father when she was young. She was furious when she saw Otis sell Lucky. OJ recalls a horse that he loved who was lost as well named Jean Jacket. They decide to call the alien that.
Holst arrives with an IMAX film camera with a crank reel, the better to capture the alien without losing footage. OJ and Em raid Jupiter’s Claim, removing batteries from the cars to power the inflatable tube men to lay a path for the alien and the horse. OJ will lure the alien (Jean Jacket or JJ) while Angel helps Holst to capture the video. During the attack, Holst gets cocky and runs closer to JJ to capture a better shot. JJ sucks him up and then heads for Angel. Angel wraps himself up in barbed wire and a tarp, causing JJ to spit him out. Enraged, JJ opens up into its fully realized form. OJ, on a horse, can easily evade JJ in the hopes that it will not get Em.
Em gets JJ to follow her to Jupiter’s Claim, where she releases a giant helium-filled balloon in Ricky’s likeness to the sky, whose eyes stare straight at JJ. Em heads over to the Winking Well and gathers up coins that it spat up to take multiple pictures of JJ eating the Ricky balloon. Em inserts coins and cranks the Winking Well to take photos of the balloon as JJ approaches it. (The flashbulbs for the camera at the bottom are not connected to electricity and are immune to JJ’s shut-off powers. That’s not official; that’s just what I’m saying). JJ sees the human-shaped balloon and devours it. As JJ returns to its flying saucer form, the compression causes the balloon to burst, killing JJ.
Em screams out in victory as the last photograph develops, perfectly capturing the fully formed JJ ensnaring the balloon. In the distance, Em sees OJ on the horse in full cowboy mode. She smiles at the camera as the scene turns to black and the movie ends.
We are left to presume that Em and OJ report all the events to the authorities, turn in their video captures, and the “Oprah shot” of JJ, and share their earnings with Angel.
For some context, Gordy’s story is based on Travis the Chimp, and the maimed woman represents Charla Nash. Contrary to Ricky’s story, the Chris Kattan character Mr. Peepers from SNL had nothing to do with this incident (the chimp attack happened years after Kattan left SNL). Furthermore, the absence of technology to combat the alien is prevalent in using horses instead of cars, film instead of digital, and balloons and flags over firearms. Not one gun is used by anyone in this western.
The UFO is the alien. After eating Ricky and his audience, OJ, Em, and Angel team up with filmmaker Holst to capture video of it on an IMAX film camera. Unfortunately, Holst gets eaten and Angel becomes incapacitated. Em releases a helium-filled balloon and (somehow) is able to activate the Winking Well to take a photograph of it with flash (the alien is supposed to shut down all technology, but maybe those lightbulbs were far enough down that they didn't get affected). As the alien flies away, the balloon bursts, killing it. Em and OJ presumably sell their footage and the "Oprah shot" photo.