Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
My colleagues and I often like to remark that outer space is definitively rural. It’s not too hard to argue the point: the stars and planets around us are as distant and low-density as it gets. In that regard, a whole genre of interstellar, science fiction works could be considered part of the rural entertainment catalog. We’ve insinuated as much in our write up on the king of the sci-fi mainstream, Star Wars.
In honor of the spectacular first photos NASA recently shared from the new James Webb telescope, we figured it would be a good time to take a closer look at this slice of the media landscape, through some recent rural stories that have a star-gazing, spacefaring bent.
Jordan Peele’s latest film has been criticized by some for not having as much to say as his previous films. Indeed, “Nope” does not share the same sociopolitical pointedness of “Get Out” and “Us.” It is a far more mercurial, restrained piece of storytelling, its meanings harder to parse. Upon first seeing the film, I’ll admit this left me initially underwhelmed, disoriented and dissatisfied. As time has gone on however, “Nope” has been steadily growing on me.
It might not occur to most, but Peele’s films have consistently deployed rural texture in some interesting ways. I can still remember clearly the tracking shot of a remote tree-lined road that opens “Get Out” and its symbolic use of deer to unsettling effect; this conveyed, among other things, how distance and isolation are a key driver of the threat for our protagonist. Likewise, through its invoking of the “Hands Across America” campaign or its core sci-fi conceit, “Us” is a film about divides, about how race, place, or other markers can capriciously alter the trajectory of our lives.
In “Nope,” Peele turns the rural dial up even further. The film draws on many genres and influences, including neo Westerns, alien encounter films, monster movies, and, of course, horror. Each of these genres has a deep legacy of rurality and so it is with “Nope.”
The film takes place on a remote ranch in the hills and valleys of California. The story follows a pair of siblings who serve as horse handlers for movie and television productions. This might imply that our setting lies somewhere within reasonable commuting distance of Hollywood, but the film is far more concerned with the big sky, the sweeping vistas, and the galloping of the horses across the ranch than anything even close to the glitz and glam of LA.
Additionally, one of “Nope’s” striking secondary settings is an amusement park adjacent to the ranch with a Wild West theme. It’s no Disneyland but rather the kind of low-key, kitschy attraction you might see while driving across the rural expanse of any number of western states from the Dakotas to west Texas. Of particular note, at a couple of key moments our protagonist is framed dramatically under a sign at said park that reads, “Out Yonder.”
As our heroes contend with a mysterious alien threat, “Nope” shows its hand slowly and without clear or lengthy elaboration. You learn more about these characters by how they carry themselves and quietly go about their business than you do through explicit dialogue or dramatic proclamation. That too strikes me as a pretty rural attitude. As noted earlier, that can make for some disillusionment as you strive to grasp what exactly is going on here and why our characters are on the course they are.
But as we’ve written about, whether in coverage of cryptid culture or other films, rural places have a unique power to conjure the surreal and the unexplainable. When you consider “Nope” with a keen focus on its setting and aesthetics, you realize its inscrutable nature is a feature, not a bug.
However you might react to this conclusion, this much is true no matter what: the landscapes of “Nope,” shot on special IMAX cameras, are captured with a visual splendor that is best seen on a big screen. And the film’s more hair-raising moments, as well as the broader conversation it’s generating, make it worth experiencing in a communal setting if you can.
Nope is currently playing in theaters.
The Outer Wilds
I’ve been hesitant to write about video games in this space given they don’t share quite the same level of accessibility as movies, music, books, and TV. But here I find myself with an opportunity to share an experience that fits perfectly with this week’s theme.
In “The Outer Wilds” you assume the role of an astronaut in training, just about to embark on your first solo spaceflight. After some basic orientation and gentle encouragement, you are set loose on an open solar system, free to explore and discover as you please.
Contrary to what you might expect, the characters in “The Outer Wilds” are part of a rather rustic society. Their dwellings and lifestyles are humble and homespun, much resembling those of early pioneers. That might seem at odds with the high technology necessary for advanced space flight and planetary exploration, but there are perfectly coherent and consistent reasons for this in the narrative of the game. And the rural vibes only make the themes of this story more resonant.
One of the artists behind “The Outer Wilds,” in a making of documentary, explained that national parks were a big inspiration for the game’s look and feel. In the designs of each planet’s terrain and even the sigils of the space program you serve, there are echoes of different national park landscapes and iconography. Exploration and wonder are at the heart of the experience as you navigate a series of grand environments.
The universe around you feels expansive and deeply intimate at the same time. Yet it is also full of lethal, unpredictable dangers, plus one looming, inescapable existential calamity. To help you on your way, you are given tools to locate your fellow space travelers across vast distances. One called a “signalscope” — a sort of telescope for sound or an aural compass — helps you track your compatriots, each of whom can always be found waiting at a campfire, playing music so that they might be found.
The campfire songs they play match the rural, frontier culture described earlier. Banjos, harmonicas, jugs, hand drums, and whistles are the instruments they deploy to offer you a beacon and a safe harbor.
One of the main reasons I so love visiting national parks is the way they make me feel small; not in a dismissive way at all, but in fact a reassuring one. To stand among vast expanses, products of eons of geological phenomena and generations of natural activity, puts in perspective our place in a larger world and clarifies the true triviality of so many of our daily concerns. I’ve been known to get similar feelings when staring into a campfire or gazing up on a starry night. I’d characterize these notions as not unlike the “overview effect” that astronauts are said to experience upon seeing Earth from space.
It’s a primal, human thing. How large and significant are our own hangups, fears and failings, really, in a universe that stretches billions of years and includes an ever-expanding, innumerable collection of stars and planets?
“The Outer Wilds” engages with these ideas better than any piece of fiction I’ve seen. By the time you finish it, confronting its calamity and reaching its resolution, your perspective on life and death — of people, planets, stories, and stars — will have shifted. Its power and meaning descends directly from its profound bittersweetness. Like our own time on this earth so often unfolds, the journey here is at once heartbreaking and life-affirming.
As testament to this, I still get goosebumps or misty eyes whenever I hear some of the musical themes from “The Outer Wilds.” This past weekend, I was visiting a small, remote island in the woods of northern Minnesota. In the middle of the night, staring up at a blanket of stars, waiting for the fire to burn out, I found myself whistling the main melody from the game, not for any practical reason but as a simple wish, to reach out and be recognized should there be any possible travelers out there on their own distant star.
In addition to being less accessible, video games are also a more immature medium relative to the rest, the “little brother” in the pop cultural pantheon if you will. This can lead to a desperation to be taken seriously, to share in the perceived legitimacy of other art forms. Whether that search for acceptance is necessary or not, this effort manifests in many ways to widely varying degrees of success, with imitation being a common result.
“The Outer Wilds” is a powerful, indelible narrative experience precisely because it takes the form of a game. The artistry it displays and the effect it has on its audience is only possible through play. If you’re able to, I encourage seeking it out, whether that means experiencing it firsthand, playing it alongside a savvy friend or family member, or even watching a recorded playthrough on YouTube. The wilds are calling and you ought to go.
The Outer Wilds is available to play on PC as well as PlayStation and Xbox game consoles.
Bonus: Suits from Love, Death & Robots
Any conversation of modern sci-fi would be incomplete without an acknowledgment of the anthology series, a format newly in vogue in the streaming era. One of my favorite anthologies is Netflix’s “Love, Death & Robots,” a collection of independent animated shorts loosely about those three things in the title. I haven’t yet had a chance to enjoy the newest season, released earlier this year, but I’m reminded of one of my favorite shorts from season 1, which definitely merits mentioning here.
Suits is the story of a group of farmers who have a particularly potent pest problem. And for your own enjoyment, that’s all I’ll say about that. Whether the M.O. of “Love, Death & Robots” is your kind of thing or not — your mileage may vary from short to short — Suits is awesome and comes highly recommended.
All seasons of Love, Death & Robots are available for streaming on Netflix.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.