Massive props need to be given to Jordan Peele for refusing to be complacent, and for being innovative instead. He started with Get Out, a fairly straightforward horror movie in terms of its plot, Us was more of a high concept, but was still simple enough to follow, and now Nope is Peele’s biggest swing yet, with big ideas, unique visuals, and themes that skew more towards industry criticism than social commentary, compared to his previous endeavors. This all culminates in a movie that isn’t quite as thematically resonant or as horrifically effective as Get Out, but it’s also more narratively tight and emotionally moving than Us.
To make it clear from the jump, Nope totally benefits from a viewing where you go in knowing as little as possible. I’m not typically one to avert my eyes and cover my ears for movie trailers, but thanks to the visual mastery and thematic singularity displayed in Peele’s previous works, I wanted to go into this one without knowing much. In the theater, seeing all these images and experiencing the plot for the first time, I was wowed and transported. Through and through, this is a summer blockbuster with exciting sequences and moments that are built for a theater experience. This review won’t go into spoilers, but be aware that your experience might benefit from not knowing as much as I’ll mention here.
The film opens with a verse from the Old Testament — Nahum 3:6 — which reads, “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” Basically, it spells out the movie’s main message immediately. Again, leaning into that industry critique, Peele seems more interested in talking about the ways us humans are addicted to spectacle, no matter the cost, and that no matter how big of a spectacle we encounter, we always want more. It’s definitely an indictment on not only audiences, but the film industry as well.
And Peele explores these in a way that only he can — by mixing horror and comedy, but this time adding in sci-fi and western elements. He does not stand pat, and his films are better for it. This time, he re-teams with Daniel Kaluuya, who plays OJ Haywood, the son of Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David). The Haywoods run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a ranch whose horses are used in Hollywood films. But when Otis Sr. is killed by random objects falling from the sky, OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are forced to take over control of the now-failing ranch. Only, there’s something otherworldly (a UAP, not a UFO) in the sky causing power outages over their ranch and the adjacent wild west attraction run by Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun). So the siblings enlist the help of Angel (Brandon Perea), a cashier at a local tech store, to install security cameras on their property, in hopes of catching footage (getting the “Oprah shot” as they call it) of the UAP and making some money.
This isn’t your typical UFO or alien movie. It’s not Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Alien. My initial thought coming out of the theater, before I’d come to a conclusion on what Nope is actually about, is that it’s Peele’s 2001 or Annihilation. Whether or not you “get” it, you’ll come out having seen some compelling, interesting images in a unique way of tackling the genre. And you know that whether or not it’s directly accessible to audiences, the director did exactly what they wanted to.
Now, I’ve come to a pretty solid conclusion on what it all means, so 2001 and Annihilation are a bit of a stretch, but this is definitely a unique film. Its genre hodgepodge works to its benefit because it’s at once uncomfortable, exciting, and stunning. There are moments that had me ready to start hooting and hollering, but there were also some of the most disturbing moments I’ve seen in a movie theater since they reopened. It’s an exhilarating mix, perfectly suited for the movies at this time of the year.
And not only does it grapple with humanity’s propensity to put our will over that of the natural world (a particular repeated flashback with an animal is the main disturbing moment I’m talking about), and our tendency to discount the work of “below-the-line” workers, or those without the name recognition, especially in the film industry, it also has a good family story at its center. The relationship between OJ and Emerald is heartwarming and relatable. Kaluuya brings a silent, stoic charisma to his character, not dissimilar to the way he’s able to act with his body over his words in Widows or Get Out, and Palmer is the film’s heart and soul. Her arc and growth are touching to watch.
And of course, especially thanks to the film’s message, it’s important to highlight the prowess of the work behind the camera. Peele’s doing his full-on summer blockbuster thing for the first time, and he’s as adept at it as he is at “elevated horror”. Hoyte Van Hoytema continues his impressive streak of excellent cinematography on critically and commercially successful films. And Michael Abels’ score is fantastic, and a standout. It blends the sound of a western with that of sci-fi flicks, and creates something special. And of course, the sound design as a whole is what contributes most to the film’s unsettling feel.
Nope, yet again, will have audiences discussing the meaning and details of a Jordan Peele film for a long time, and it’s well deserved. He’s now three-for-three with his feature directorial efforts, and if he hadn’t already, he’s immovably solidified himself as one of the very best working in Hollywood today.