Jordan Peele’s newest is full of spectacle, lighter on substance
Jordan Peele is a filmmaker who knows how to conjure shuddering dread and fear-drenched discombobulation, so it’s no surprise that Nope delivers superlative sensations. A pale flying saucer silently darts across a cloud-pocked moonlit night. A blood-soaked chimpanzee rips off a birthday party hat. Little furry creatures with wan faces slowly contort their frames as they walk through a murky stable. And why does that woman in the veil have no lips? Peele’s feel for the harrowing is unmatched; Nope unsettles and thrills, usually at the same time.
NOPE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Written by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun
Running time: 135 mins
But movies should be more than just mood boards, especially ones which revel in close encounters with extraterrestrial beings. And while Nope gets under your skin, it rarely dives deeper, even as it traffics in classic sci-fi tropes, hoary horror jump scares, chronology-jumping narrative scrambles, and wink-wink comic ribbing. This genre-mash-up mishegoss feints profundity, from its wrathful opening-statement Old Testament quote to its growling recitation of “Flying Purple People Eater.” The overall message? Watch the skies; then watch yourself. Anything else? Not really, except for a “no-pics-no-proof” obsession that drives the climax.
The less you know the better, since part of what makes Nope so effective is seeing oddities pile up — even if they never really add up to anything, raising more questions then they answer. But it’s not too much to say that Nope is about the hunger for spectacle, and the high cost that comes with it. It’s about how people process trauma by perpetuating it, how wild things can never truly be tamed, and how a nagging urge to observe can be deadly.
More precisely, this is a story about a family of animal wranglers whose generational business, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, traces its lineage all the way back to the very first motion picture: Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 “The Horse in Motion,” a 2-second clip captured on cabinet cards. The jockey on that horse is Alistair Haywood, or so claim his great-great-great-grandchildren Otis Jr, aka O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emerald (Keke Palmer), who consider Alistair the world’s first stuntman, animal wrangler, and movie star. But now their family business is hurting, and even though they’ve had to sell off a few of their horses, O.J.’s goal is to buy them all back. They just need a miracle to save their secluded ranch and the main house overlooking it, both nestled in an immense valley tucked away in Agua Dulce, California.
Enter the immobile cloud. It parks high in the sky, and doesn’t seem to budge. But sometimes there’s an electromagnetic charge that cuts out their electricity. Sometimes the sky rains down house keys, pocket change, and other debris for no reason. Sometimes a horse or two get sucked right up. And sometimes they even see a sliver of an object—unidentified and flying—shoot in and out of that stationary cloud. To the casual observer, it looks like a UFO. But to O.J. and Emerald, it looks like an Oprah moment, and their ticket to fame and fortune.
They rope in a local electronics store tech support guy named Angel (Brandon Perea) to help them set up surveillance cameras and closed-circuit feeds so they can record their surroundings around the clock. But those pesky power outages keep happening, and that UFO keeps menacing their house—even spewing out a torrential crimson rainstorm that may or may not be human fluids. (It is.)
Nope has a few clever twists and turns, plus dollops of below-the-line movie-industry flourishes, like when O.J. casually dons a Scorpion King sweatshirt with CREW emblazoned on the back. There’s even a former child star named Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) who parlayed his ’90s cultural notoriety into a Wild West theme park and a reality TV show. Cultural detritus is his bread and butter, complete with a secret room full of rare and deeply macabre memorabilia that fetches high admission prices from dedicated, deep-pocketed fans.
But all these threads, and their scattershot consequences, end up feeling like misdirection compared to the real magic, which comes when Peele lets loose with his truly audacious atmospherics and literally out-of-this-world visualizations. There’s a reason Peele shot Nope with IMAX cameras, and it’s that dedication to the immersive experience which makes the film such a joy to witness. Then again, it’s this hyper-focus on the moment-to-moment chills that keeps the story from really exploring the consequences of encountering a power beyond comprehension—or truly reckoning with the insatiable needs inside us. Peele doesn’t seem as interested in pondering the unknown, or reconciling with the subconscious, as he is in simply reveling in it.