Leading up to its release on July 22, Jordan Peele kept his highly-anticipated third film, Nope, tightly under wraps. The trailer is little more than a spooky montage of dark forces and craning necks, and Peele was very cagey about what happens in the movie in the few interviews he’s given. His elusiveness sparked a whole host of wild fan theories and predictions: that the movie is about government drones, or time travelers, or the MMA fighter Angela Hill.
Well, two TIME reporters saw the film—and walked out of it with even more theories and questions than when we walked in. Nope is a transfixing and hugely ambitious movie with a perplexing array of disparate characters and symbols: a murderous chimp, inflatable dancing men, a flying saucer. By the time the film has ended, the A-plot has resolved itself neatly. But in the two packed theaters where we screened the film, theatergoers remained silent and still as the credits rolled, suggesting some sort of confusion, or at least unease, with the whole thing.
As TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek put it, “Peele, it seems, is one of those ‘It means what you think it means’ filmmakers, which delights some audiences but comes off as a copout for viewers who want to know what a filmmaker is thinking, because ostensibly those thoughts are more interesting than anything we could come up with on our own.”
So, just like the movie’s characters, we’ll try to interpret what we’ve seen before us while mixing in grandiose conspiracy theories to answer one big question: What, exactly, is Nope about? Spoilers, of course, abound.
Jordan Peele’s movies beg to be closely scrutinized: they’re full of historical and cultural Easter eggs, double meanings and sociopolitical commentary. His first two films, Get Out and Us, have provoked endless analysis from professors, psychologists, and historians, with Get Out even inspiring a whole class at UCLA. Peele isn’t shy about his conceptual ambition and his penchant for writing Big Themes into genre storytelling: “Humanity is the monster in my films,” he told Vanity Fair in 2017.
But in the last few months, Peele has signaled that Nope is different in that regard, that his intentions may be more visceral and surface-level. “I wrote it in a time when we were a little bit worried about the future of cinema,” Peele said. “So the first thing I knew is I wanted to create a spectacle… the great American UFO story.”