Reel Science

The Wildest Sci-Fi Thriller on Amazon Prime Reveals a Strange Aerial Phenomenon

Is it a UFO, or just a really weird cloud?

Originally Published: 
Inverse, Universal Pictures
Reel Science

Two siblings spot an alien spaceship hiding behind the clouds and decide to capture it on camera for posterity — and a chance at a whole lot of money.

(Spoilers ahead for the movie Nope!)

Throughout the runtime of Nope, we see a UFO hiding behind a lens-shaped cloud, peeking out only periodically to rain down havoc on “OJ” and “Em” Haywood — two Black siblings managing their late father’s horse ranch in the mountainous desert outside of LA.

“It’s in the cloud. It’s in the cloud. OJ! It’s in the cloud!” Em yells to her brother OJ as she spots what’s seemingly an extraterrestrial spaceship skulking behind a weird-looking circular cloud.

But these weird alien clouds aren’t simply the creative genius of director Jordan Peele. They actually exist in our own world — though they’re much less terrifying in real life compared to their cinematic counterpart.

“Generally, lenticular clouds are just benign, really nothing to worry about,Robert (Bob) Rauber, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign tells Inverse.

Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.

Why Are There UFO-Shaped” Clouds?

Meteorologists and cloud dynamics experts know the UFO-shaped weather phenomenon in Nope as a “lenticular cloud.” Also known as “orographic clouds,” these clouds form when air with suitable temperature and moisture conditions flows over mountains.

“They are called lenticular simply because they look like lenses —or flying saucers — with a smooth and slightly curved shape,” Robert Houze, a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, tells Inverse.

Rauber explains that lenticular clouds form when moist air flows up and over a mountain. Picture a current of air moving over one side of a mountain — that’s what we call “upwind.” When the air flows over the top and down to the other side — downwind — waves are generated in the air, leading to the formation of lenticular clouds.

We’ve known about lenticular clouds for a long time — one 1932 report out of Japan describes lenticular clouds forming near Mount Fuji. Lenticular clouds often take on a “stacked” appearance since alternating dry and moist layers give the cloud its unique lens-shaped — or UFO-like — appearance.

“You might have a very moist layer and then a drier layer above it and a moist layer above that. Then each of the moist layers will produce a lenticular cloud,” Rauber adds.

Are the Clouds in Nope Realistic?

Lenticular clouds primarily arise over mountains, so while they’re generally rare, they’re more common in parts of the Mountain West in America. Rauber says he’s spotted lenticular clouds only a few times living in Illinois, but people living in places like Boulder, Colorado will likely see them more frequently.

Nope is set in southern California, presumably somewhere in the desert outside of Los Angeles. The ranch appears to be sandwiched between a series of smaller mountains, so it’s not unrealistic to see lenticular clouds there. In fact, a lenticular cloud spotted in southern California not long after Nope’s release drew comparisons to the sci-fi horror movie.

But exercise caution when it comes to viral photos of UFO-shaped clouds. Rauber says fake photos of lenticular clouds with an abnormal number of layers will sometimes circulate on social media.

Do They Really Hide UFOs?

Lenticular clouds (pictured here) sometimes bear a strong resemblance to UFOs. Lenticular clouds appeared over Turkiye's Bursa province in January 2023.

Getty/Anadolu Agency

But both Houze and Rauber say you have nothing to fear from lenticular clouds — whether it's aliens or more natural terrors like lightning. Houze says lenticular clouds arise in conditions “extremely unfavorable” for thunderstorms.

“They just form and evaporate. they're really not associated with any hazardous weather,” Rauber says.

Despite their harmless nature, people have confused lenticular clouds with frightening extraterrestrial objects for eons — much like the Haywood siblings in Nope.

“This is an old story. Lenticular clouds over and downstream from mountains have been misinterpreted as UFOs since the 1950s,” Houze says.

At the end of the day, if you spot a lenticular cloud, you probably won’t find yourself in a surreal sci-fi horror movie straight from the mind of Jordan Peele — which is probably a good thing.

“I imagine people with wild imaginations can probably see a UFO and those clouds but they do look like clouds if you just look at them,” Rauber concludes.

Nope is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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