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The Sky’s No Limit in Jordan Peele’s Wildly Ambitious ‘Nope’

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Published August 3, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Horses and humans go haywire in Peele's fascinating yet ultimately unwieldy horror conceit. - COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL
  • Courtesy Of Universal
  • Horses and humans go haywire in Peele's fascinating yet ultimately unwieldy horror conceit.

Writer-director Jordan Peele didn't invent the "social horror" genre, but the label gained popularity as a description of his 2017 hit Get Out, which blended scares, humor and incisive commentary on racism in America. The former sketch comedian followed up his Oscar-winning directorial debut with Us, a wildly ambitious 2019 horror film that triumphed at the box office while dividing audiences.

Now Peele returns with Nope, one of the few summer movies that enticed me out to the theater. Find it at most multiplexes.

The deal

OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer) Hayward grew up on a ranch in the California desert, helping their father (Keith David) train horses for Hollywood productions. After their dad perishes in what appears to be a freak incident of debris falling from the sky, laconic OJ struggles to keep the family business alive. He sells off some of the horses to former child star Jupe (Steven Yeun), who runs a tacky Western theme park nearby.

Live wire Em prefers to chase her own showbiz dreams. But when she and OJ witness strange phenomena at the ranch — electricity and phones going dead, followed by glimpses of a saucer-shaped craft in the sky — she decides that getting exclusive footage of aliens could be their ticket to the big time.

If only the UFO would cooperate.

Will you like it?

I can't say much more about what happens in Nope without spoiling it. I can say I found the movie's first half way more engaging than its second, which settles into a familiar groove, even if it's not the groove we initially expected. Other viewers may have the opposite reaction.

What makes the film's first half so absorbing is its obsessively detailed world building. When it comes to inventing alternative versions of Hollywood history, Peele seems determined to outdo Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in ... Hollywood. We learn that OJ and Em are descendants of the unnamed Black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge's "The Horse in Motion" (1878), described here as the very first motion picture. We're treated to harrowing scenes from the backstory of Yeun's character, whose life was shaped by a horrific incident he witnessed on the set of a cheesy '90s sitcom. We even hear a detailed description of the "Saturday Night Live" sketch his trauma inspired.

What, you may ask, does all of this have to do with aliens? Not much, or so it appears at first. As the movie progresses, thematic threads emerge to connect the disparate pieces. But we may appreciate those themes intellectually more than we feel their power.

Nope is stuffed full of arresting and purposeful visual details, from the design of the theme park to the portentous clouds above the ranch to the electronics store with a sad sign that says "We Match Internet Prices." (OJ and Em buy equipment there to surveil the aliens and connect with a salesman [Brandon Perea] who's a true believer.) There's so much to see that it may take us a while to realize we scarcely know the characters.

While OJ and Em have amusingly complementary personalities, we never delve deep into their hopes, their dreams or their sibling relationship. We get distracted by Jupe's lurid history, yet his motivations in the present are poorly fleshed out.

That's a shame, because Jupe's ill-advised choices lead to two of the most chilling scenes I've ever seen in an alien-visitation movie. While Nope as a whole seldom moves the scare-o-meter, those two sequences, together with an expertly orchestrated '90s flashback, belong in the horror pantheon.

The movie's ambition buoys up our expectations, but its unfocused storytelling makes it hard to get too invested in the outcome. At 131 minutes, Nope is hardly short, but it still sometimes feels as if vital connective scenes were left on the cutting-room floor. This is one of those fascinating, frustrating movies that inspire people to buy director's cuts.

Peele clearly has something to say here about what philosopher Guy Debord called the "society of the spectacle." Everyone in the movie is eager to cash in on the wonder in the sky, whether by getting viral footage or by selling front-row tickets. Vision — its power, its danger, its centrality to moviemaking — is the dominant motif.

In the end, Peele doesn't illuminate those themes so much as he subsumes them in traditional Hollywood action beats, allowing ass-kicking to be its own justification. Still, a failure from him is more compelling than a success from most other filmmakers. I won't say nope to whatever he decides to do next.

If you like this, try...

Signs (2002; rentable): M. Night Shyamalan nailed the creepy atmosphere of an alien-visitation movie in his fifth film, only to pull out a twist that ruined the film for some viewers. Peele makes his own sharp turns in Nope, but his imagination is a lot darker and more interesting than Shyamalan's.

Us (2019; Kanopy, rentable): Like Nope, Peele's second film was divisive and featured questionable logic, but I love the sheer audacity of the allegory at its core.

X (2022; rentable): If you like horror movies that meditate on Hollywood history and take place in wide open rural spaces, don't miss the latest period piece from Ti West, a riff on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.