Nope (2022) Review
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Wren Schmidt, Kieth David, Terry Notary, Jacob Kim
Jordan Peele’s latest genre-smashing film Nope has arrived hotly anticipated and under an impenetrable cloud of secrecy. For almost a year, all we had to go on was a poster depicting an ominous nimbus with the one-word title, then several teasers that mostly just showed people looking up into the sky. You’d be well-served to go into this one without watching any of the film’s more recent marketing, but suffice to say this particular sci-fi suspense thriller will not be going quite the way you think it might.
Following the sudden death of their father, Hollywood horse training siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) begin experiencing strange happenings at their California ranch that point towards extraterrestrial visitors. With the help of over-enthusiastic tech support guy Angel (Brandon Perea) and eccentric cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), the Haywoods set out on a mission to capture incontrovertible evidence that we are not alone in the universe.
We are told early on that the first moving image was of a black man riding a horse. We know that Eadweard Muybridge filmed it, but we don’t know the name of the first movie star/stuntman in this revolutionary 2 seconds of film. Peele capitalises on this historical erasure by making Otis Haywood (Kieth David) and his children the direct descendants of this man – they have working with horses, and on movies, in their blood.
The film explores two seemingly separate thematic paths that nevertheless intersect in some fascinating ways: 1. The compulsive human need to gawp at spectacle; 2. How most animals’ behaviour becomes more erratic and dangerous as soon as a human makes direct eye contact with it.
We open with an incident, seemingly unrelated to the rest of the UFO-chasing narrative, in which a chimp viciously attacks its co-stars on a hit 90s sitcom. Later, Jupe (Jacob Kim), the child actor who miraculously escaped unscathed, has grown up to be a successful showman (now played by Steven Yeun) who uses his traumatic experience to fuel his desire to deliver a one-of-a-kind live experience to a shamelessly entertainment-craving audience. Jupe’s Western-themed amusement park is of course just a stone’s throw from the Haywood ranch, and before long everyone’s lives will be inextricably tied together.
The slow-build tension of Nope‘s first half certainly has the vibe of a Close Encounters or a Signs in so much as you can’t quite figure out how much is real or in the heads of some of these troubled characters. You’re given plenty of time to get to know each of the protagonists and what they want out of life, which always helps when the threat level ramps up, and Kaluuya and Palmer’s endearing and completely believable family squabbles, plus Wincott’s slightly mad, gravelly drawl of his pretentious dialogue, are the highlights of this small but memorable ensemble.
It becomes a lot more like Jaws or other giant animal movies in its second half, except that it trades the open ocean for the rolling California hills and a tell-tale fin in the water for an uncannily still cloud in a clear blue sky as the ragtag group try to work out exactly what is going on and how, or if, it can be stopped.
There are plenty of mythological and religious references to be found throughout Peele’s screenplay and the kinds of visuals he most heavily relies upon, from the biblical quote that comes pre-titles (“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile and make you a spectacle.”) to the idea from Greek myths of a “monster” whose terrible power is linked to being looked at. Of course the camera is something modern humans rely on and believe often more than their own eyes, so it becomes the ultimate symbol of our gullibility.
There have been an encouraging amount of thoughtful, thematically rich sci-fi films over the last decade, from Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night to Benson and Moorhead’s duology Resolution and The Endless. The former was all about the visceral human reaction to sound and storytelling, and the latter, very much like Nope, is about the power of visual stimuli and the need for answers that remain frustratingly elusive. None of those aforementioned indie alien movies had anything like the scale, scope or the $68 million budget of Peele’s film, but he certainly doesn’t waste it.
Nope showcases the most interesting looking alien since Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. It very much appears to be a retro flying saucer type when it first appears, but from the right angle looks an awful lot like an iconic object from another genre too, and as it reveals more of its true form it only gets weirder, and strangely, more believable as a real organism. The IMAX camera of Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar; Spectre) makes the whole thing feel appropriately grand and sweeping, and the action scenes that make an asset of the seemingly endless landscape are thrilling in an old-fashioned kind of way like you’d find in the Western films the Haywoods built their business around.
Nope might not punch you in the stomach like Get Out or slap you in the face like Us, but it creeps up on you and has a power all its own. It’s certainly a grower, and promises to reveal much more on each rewatch. Because he started out the gate with two such attention-grabbing horror films on the bounce, Jordan Peele has most often been compared to frequent horror directors like John Carpenter and Wes Craven, but Nope proves his versatility and his talent for getting character right first and foremost, before developing some original ideas and then providing the spectacle we all crave to cap it all off. With Nope, Peele is well on his way to being the next Steven Spielberg.