Written and Directed by Jordan Peele.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Wrenn Schmidt, Barbie Ferreira, Donna Mills, Terry Notary, Jennifer Lafleur, Sophia Coto, Ryan W. Garcia, Andrew Patrick Ralston, Gloria Cole, Conor Kawalski, Lincoln Lambert, Keith David, Devon Graye, Oz Perkins, Jacob Kim, and Eddie Jemison.
The residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.
Nope has scope, and that’s about it. That’s also one way of saying Jordan Peele, the director, showed up and that Jordan Peele, the writer, made a mess of his script. This is frustrating for several reasons, chief among them being that the one-two punch of Get Out and Us are incredible racially charged horror flicks imbued with the kind of uproarious comedy that helped him make a name for himself on Comedy Central’s Key and Peele. In contrast, Nope probably could have used a lighter, more satirical touch, given what the characters are trying to accomplish and what the narrative is trying to reveal about society and filmmaking.
The biggest bummer is that Nope doesn’t have much interesting to say in the end. It’s also impossible to say anything profound that emotionally resonates when the narrative swings back and forth like a pendulum to different characters and subplots (with no grace whatsoever and a baffling chapter structure that consistently fades to black during sequences that should be sustaining suspense and excitement), one of which that is trying to criticize Hollywood (to be fair, that’s baked into the core of the story as well) but amounts to nothing more than an unbelievable misfire that uses some of its traumatized and disfigured characters as symbolic props rather than for a definite purpose.
Even worse, the backstory behind it is so ludicrous and without meaningful purpose (which would allow the ludicrous part to be forgiven) that it mostly comes across like Jordan Peele’s brilliant Key and Peele script doctor sketch ripping apart Gremlins 2 (crazed killer monkeys?! Oh my God, I love it! It’s in the movie).
In his defense, Jordan Peele shouldn’t be pigeonholed into biting racial commentary for every project. But his redirection towards tackling the Hollywood system does work in the film’s opening act, which also introduces us to rancher OJ (an effectively minimalistic turn from the great Daniel Kaluuya, although perhaps a bit too restrained) and his sister Emerald (rising star Keke Palmer). The latter is far more in sync with Jordan Peele’s love letter attempt at filmmaking and the appeal of getting “an impossible shot.” Strangely, after the first 20 minutes, Peele mostly abandons insight on how Hollywood treats these Black horse wranglers and how they have historically done so for generations.
Nope switches gears from the struggles of financially saving the ranch via thanklessly lending Hollywood their horses for projects, to seeking money and fame by snapping photographic evidence of a UFO that the quiet OJ spots while chasing after one of their prized horses that mysteriously run off in the night (almost as if it’s terrified of something coming and exclaiming “nope” as many of the human characters repeatedly do during scenes of tension). Again, obtaining this evidence is referred to as “the impossible shot,” which could be an indictment of the sad state of blockbuster filmmaking; get your money shot, sell it in the trailer, rake in the money, and fuck having a coherent narrative or even decipherable action.
Metaphorical waxing aside, obtaining visual UFO proof is also intended to bring OJ and Emerald closer again, as the siblings have been estranged ever since their dad died an inexplicable tragic death on the ranch, seemingly related to whatever is in the sky. They are also joined by a nosy electronic store technician Angel (Brandon Perea), providing some fun and levity while installing high-end digital security cameras.
It’s also shocking that Jordan Peele seems to miss that more laughs should come into play (especially since everyone involved has fine comedic chemistry during the few and far between jokey bits), not treating the story too seriously, especially since both thematic presence and characterization are scarce here. By not doing so, everything but the action falls flat. Turning an alien-invasion flick around into obsession with the unknown from its protagonists requires them to be compelling and richly drawn, which they are in some respects but mostly underdeveloped.
However, there are assuredly some fascinatingly eerie observations, such as a cloud that has stood still for six months, power outages, and intense moments stemming from UFO-responsible tornadoes. And when it comes down to it, the action sequences are involving, with the right amount of clearness, clever obstructions, and blocking until it’s time to reveal what these characters are up against.
Peele should also buy composer Michael Abels and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema something nice for Christmas, as they single-handedly save Nope from no return. The former laces his chilling score with a Western twist, whereas the latter excels at capturing awe-inspiring shots such as a horse outrunning something across a vast dusty landscape. Still, their contributions are not enough to make any of this engage on a narrative or character level.
Oddly, some parts of Nope that feel out of place indeed turn out to be the freakiest (ridiculously talented motion capture artist Terry Notary is also something for that). It’s enough to wish that we got to spend more time with Steven Yeun’s former child actor Jupe, who witnessed something traumatic on-set that doesn’t feel fully explored in the present day. Anyway, he now makes a living running a Western-themed amusement park that seems to be the only sign of human life near the ranch.
Not only is this a scattershot narrative, but Peele falls prey to what he is grinding an ax against; the Hollywood system and its obsession with impossible shots over concise storytelling. As is, Nope is gorgeous and filled with a riveting spectacle that’s human element is lost in epic ambition. It’s indescribably disappointing how one feels nothing even when Jordan Peele’s climactic suspense is in overdrive and superbly crafted. At one point, OJ asks his sister Emerald what a “bad miracle” is; the answer is Nope.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com