While not as pointed as Get Out, and a bit looser than Us, Nope proves that the meteoric rise of Jordan Peele from sketch comedian to Hollywood heavyweight has side-stepped the sophomore slump and the third film blues. Looking into the thematic material of his latest, a UFO adventure film, it’s easy to see why. Peele has always had a cultural and historical savvy in his work, even as far back as MadTv, and with Nope he points his unique lens at Hollywood itself. It’s about how Hollywood chews things up and spits out what it can’t use. It’s about how the history of the craft is as full of holes as a poorly preserved reel of film. It’s about how, when capturing a historical moment, it takes much more than just one man.
‘Hollywood’ is a general term, of course, meant not just as a label for the business itself, but for the intoxicating draw of fame. In a world of apps, sound bytes, and live streaming, tragedy is often repackaged as entertainment.
But more so than anything else, it’s about UFOs, which I loooooove
Did I say UFOs? I mean UAPs. The world of ufology (yes, that’s what it is called) has moved from the designation of “Unidentified Flying Object” to “Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon.” Why this change was made,we’ll never know. Perhaps because we humans like to add syllables to terms that make us uncomfortable and act like it helps in some way. In Nope, the term is first brought to our attention by Angel (Brandon Perea), a pushy tech guy who is hired to install surveillance cameras on Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a farm that raises and trains horses to be used in film and television.
About six months ago, the owner of Haywood’s died in a freak occurrence. Trash mysteriously fell from the sky, jamming a nickel into his eye, and now the farm is being run by his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), with some help from OJ’s sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). In order to keep the business afloat, they’ve been slowly selling off their stock to a neighboring attraction run by former child star Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) who has his own history with showbiz animals. I won’t get into it. But these financial woes move to the bottom of the OJ’s list of concerns when a UFO starts appearing in the skies overhead, typically taking a horse or two with it.
Did I say UFO? I mean UAP. Sorry.
This isn’t your typical alien invasion or alien attack movie, and our heroes are not necessarily trying to kill or escape the mysterious UAP. Nope, all they want to do is film it. Because much like their great-great-great grandfather learned as the subject of the very first moving picture, it’s not the subject of the film, but the person pointing the camera who gets “that Oprah money.”
Fans of Peele’s previous work would be correct to assume that a horror film is to follow, and while there are a handful of scary and intense sequences, this is much more akin to a film like Jaws or Tremors than it is Fire in the Sky. Spielberg’s game-changing blockbuster is correctly regarded as horror, but a more accurate term would be an “adventure” film.
Nope is very much an adventure film.
The comparisons to Spielberg are aplenty, but it would be a disservice to Jordan Peele as an auteur to say it’s anything more than homage (and it would be a spoiler to say how he subverts a classic Spielberg shot — see if you can figure it out). After becoming a household name and a bonafide box office draw, the writer/director was given a lot more money to play with for his third outing, and to his credit, every cent of it is onscreen. Nope was shot entirely with IMAX cameras, employed to capture sweeping vistas and gorgeous cloudscapes…often with a UFO zipping through it all.
I mean UAP. Sorry.
It’s no wonder that Hoyt Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Tenet) was brought in to shoot the film, and again he turns in exceptional work. Has the moon ever looked this good on screen? Heck, it looks better in IMAX than it often does in real life!
For such a deep lens and a large story, Nope is a relatively minimalist film. Sure, the visuals are fantastic (the clouds are often breathtaking), and we’re dealing with a potentially intergalactic scope, but the plot is rather small and intimate. The cast list is short (stacked, but short) and outside of some short departures from the main narrative, it’s almost entirely in a single location. With all respect to the thematics deftly woven into the story, as well as to the fact that is a fuggen alien movie, what ends up sizzling the screen most is the family drama underpinning it all, played to perfection by Kaluuya and Palmer. Their OJ and Emerald are the best kind of cinematic siblings: motivated by love and duty, but with different goals and methods. The scenes they share are charged with familial verisimilitude, complete with the love, sadness, and humor inherent to a brother/sister relationship. While they are not always the focus of the action, their mere existence gives everyone else’s story proper weight, simultaneously working to keep the pace tight, even as the story bounces through flashbacks and title cards with abandon.
This looseness is where some may bristle against the film, wanting answers to questions asked long ago, but the patient will be rewarded the same way they were with both Get Out and Us, the latter requiring multiple views to work out even just the logistics of the concept. Nope certainly invites multiple viewings, and I am confident that this already incredible film will increase in quality every time. So often the blockbusters we get these days are designed (almost literally) in a lab to be broadly appealing and easy to follow. Nope is an exception to this trend. While it’s not necessarily hard to follow, it doesn’t always show its hand when you want it to. This leads to a satisfying filmgoing experience that lasts long after the lights come up. Frankly, I feel like an idiot writing about it after just one viewing when, in the days after seeing it I’ve spent much longer than the runtime talking about it with the one other person I know who has seen it already (Hi Andy).
I get the sense that this will be similar to Us in that what seems loose and shaggy at first is actually deceptively tight. Jordan Peele trusts his audience, and that’s why we trust him to continue battering our brains with his brand of thematically rich genre exercises. And if Nope is what he can do with a big budget, keep that money coming. Give this man the biggest cinematic sandbox in which to flesh out his ideas, because the dude is on a wild trip and I want it all documented.
Oh, and if you’re expecting frequent comical utterances of the title to get annoying after a while, keep waiting. It’s hilarious every single time.
Directed by Jordan Peele
Written by Jordan Peele
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott
Rated R, 130 minutes