Peele’s third movie delivers excitement, thrills, laughs, and deeper meaning in every frame
In the span of just a few short years, Jordan Peele has gone from small screen notoriety as one half of comedic sketch duo Key & Peele to one of Hollywood’s best and brightest filmmakers. Like Steven Spielberg and M. Night Shyamalan before him (whose work serves as some of the biggest inspirations behind his latest film) Peele has very quickly rode the success of Get Out and Us to become a modern household name – and one of the only directors working today where that name alone is enough to sell tickets. The cryptic marketing surrounding Nope has been a prime example of the power that Peele holds, where refreshingly very little has been revealed in terms of actual plot. Instead, almost all promotion for the film knows that it only needs to emphasize one thing: This is a Jordan Peele movie.
Combining the tight plotting and sharp-wittedness of Get Out with the higher ambition and intensity of Us, Peele delivers chills, thrills, and action on a Biblical scale in Nope; literally opening the film with an ominous Bible verse before reigning down holy terror. Shot with IMAX cameras to appropriately convey the film’s awe-inspiring scale, Nope is a truly inspired and original take on the classic wonder and terror of UFO stories and movies. It just may be his best movie yet.
Nope takes place in a beautiful California desert valley where brother and sister Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) have called home their entire lives. The siblings come from a long line of horse wranglers who care for and train the animals for use in movie and television productions. After the sudden death of their father (Keith David) a few months back, the two have been struggling to stay afloat and have conflicting views on whether to try and keep the business alive or to simply let it go. Financial stress had led to the two of them selling most of their horses to their neighbor, Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child star who runs a Old West-themed carnival designed after one the shows the young actor starred in.
Strange occurrences have been going down around the ranch ever since Otis Sr. passed away. Electricity in the area constantly fluctuates – even battery-powered objects like cell phones suddenly shut off without warning or apparent reason. Horses go missing. The occasional disembodied scream seems to float through the air. Random small objects sometimes rain down from the sky. Sometimes it looks like one of the clouds hasn’t moved in a day or two. One day, OJ finally catches a glimpse of it: A literal flying saucer, sleek, silent, big and unsettling.
While shocking, the Haywood siblings see an opportunity in the phenomena they’re witnessing. If they can manage to capture the UFO on video, the proof of extraterrestrial life could shoot them to newfound riches and fame. Easier said than done, what with the object’s ability to knock out all power in its vicinity and its unclear motivations for arriving at the Haywood’s ranch, so the Haywoods recruit the help of an electronics store employee named Angel (Brandon Perea) to help set up cameras throughout the property as well as a famous, glory-seeking cinematographer named Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). But as one might expect, the ragtag group is in for much more than they bargained for. Otherwordly horror quickly ensues.
Nope is continuously engaging from the start, building up its alien mystery while wisely focusing on its central characters first. Kaluuya once again proves that his eyes alone can convey a multitude of emotions and tell his character’s story better than dialogue could, and Peele gives him and his co-stars the needed room to convey that through a series of intimate closeups and choosing actions and expressions over needless words. Where OJ is quiet and guarded, Em is infinitely more exuberant (though no less guarded than her brother) and Palmer delivers an equally as powerful performance. The two play off each other as bickering but loving siblings quite well. Yeun, even with limited screentime, is able to turn Jupe into a multi-faceted person as well, one with a painful history and a unique way of dealing with it.
Taking notes from the likes of Signs, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, War of the Worlds, and even Jaws, Peele conjures up feelings of dread and excitement in equal amounts, constantly ramping up the tension and the action until the film’s finale becomes a white-knuckle thrill ride that’s equal parts jaw-dropping terror and out-of-your-seat exhilaration. Sound designer Johnnie Burn (Under the Skin, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite) does tremendous work with the unknown threat of the UFO and how it relates to the world below its hull, and cinematographer Hoyte van Hotema (Interstellar, Dunkirk, Tenet) captures its mass and the looming sky it soars through in stunning IMAX scale. What exactly the UFO ends up being is some of the most inspired and original takes on the subject ever put onscreen.
At the same time that Peele is crafting blockbuster amusement, the filmmaker is also reckoning with his own legacy and his part in Hollywood and American culture’s constant need to commodify atrocities and trauma. Jupe wants to make a spectacle of the flying saucer and hawk tickets to see it, much like he’s been profiting off his own horrifically tragic past by exploiting the public’s morbid curiosity with such things. As much as Peele’s success is owed to his own proven mastery of the art of the filmmaking, one can’t also help but wonder how much is due to society’s insatiable appetite for consuming physically, emotionally and psychologically violent content.
Just look at the continuous stream of Get Out and Us copycats that have come out in the short years since Peele released those racial and class-conscious thrillers for further proof of how the only way people seem willing to digest atrocities and real-life terror is if it’s through the lens of entertainment – and how even the most well-intentioned of artists will happily feed it to them. At the same time that Jupe is cashing in on his trauma, it’s also his chosen means of survival; not only to financially support himself and his family but seemingly the only way he knows how to make sense of what he’s witnessed and gone through.
He’s attempting to recontextualize and reframe it in one of the only ways us Americans know how: by turning it into entertainment for the masses and charging a few hard-earned bucks to satisfy our inability to look away. Facing fears and tragedies versus turning our back to or running from them is but one of the many ideas at play in Nope; take the contrasting ways the Haywood siblings deal with the loss of their father and potential loss of their livelihood. OJ and Em themselves aren’t above chasing the dollar sign of the American dream either, as their endeavor isn’t one where they save the world from an alien menace but instead one of simply hoping to strike big by capturing the impossible on film and selling it.
But such is the endeavor of even the most artistic and progressive of auteurs, whose efforts to process all of the complexities of life’s thoughts and feelings and immortalize them on camera are usually still confined within a capitalist-minded industry like Hollywood, since they’re the only ones with the means to fund and distribute it. That industry can and very often does easily swallow creative voices whole. With Nope, Peele’s biggest movie in terms of budget, scale and drama, he’s having his cake and eating it too, critiquing the very field he’s working in while using it to create an expensive crowd-pleasing popcorn flick that conveys his love for the medium more than he ever has before. He certainly wouldn’t be the first, but very few have delivered on such a viscerally entertaining, intelligent and profound level as he does here. It’s all the more remarkable that it comes at a time where so much mainstream film and television has increasingly been feeling like interchangeable gray sludge to consume and immediately forget. Yet here we have an IMAX-sized summer blockbuster that’s operating and succeeding on multiple levels with genuine artistic merit to boot.
Even with its various layers of thematic ideas, social commentary and inner character drama, Nope is still first and foremost a roller coaster of thrilling entertainment. Peele perfectly blends his expected elements of horror and comedy with more action and adventure than he’s ever been allowed to play with, delivering truly spectacular big screen movie magic with an apparent aim at making history – or simply reclaiming it. Like the Haywoods’ efforts to reclaim the legacy of their great-great-great grandfather – the anonymous man riding atop a horse in one of the very first moving pictures ever made and who was subsequently left out of the industry’s celebrated history – Peele and other Black filmmakers are currently taking back cinema as their own. They’re but one piece of the larger picture when it comes to righting the wrongs of erasure; how the achievements of disenfranchised people have been scrubbed from the pages of history and their names forgotten.
But as Emerald informs us in her introductory monologue, “Since the motion pictures could move, we’ve had skin in the game.” They’ve always been there, pushed to the margins, but still essential in making the magic happen. Now, even more so than with Get Out and Us, Peele is reclaiming their place at the forefront of both technical and artistic achievement while also establishing himself as one of the best to ever get behind a camera and yell “Action!” As much contempt as Nope appears to have towards the entertainment industry, the film is also a tribute to the movies themselves, specifically the unseen and underappreciated artists who truly make them magical. It’s entirely fitting that a final act shot of OJ heroically poised on the back of his horse – an obvious invocation of the recent historic reclamation of Black cowboys – ends up being more striking of an image than any of the extraterrestrial mayhem.
See it on the biggest screen possible.
‘Nope’ is now playing in theaters.