Jordan Peele’s NOPE offers the writer-director’s spectacular spin on crowd-pleasing entertainment, but the pace is marred by awkwardly embedded subtext.
Jordan Peele’s Nope again shows the writer-director of Get Out and Us once again twisting the horror genre around his little finger to suit his own concerns. With DNA strands from Signs, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even E.T., Nope feels a bit as if Spielberg’s abandoned Night Skies project (intended as the malevolent counterpoint to Close Encounters) had finally reached the screen, but Peele has gene-spiced the elements into something instantly recognizable as a “Jordan Peele” film, mixing scares with social commentary. In this case, the commentary is muted – it would be possible to overlook it and simply view Nope as a thriller, except for the narrative detours used to insert subtext where there is no text – including an almost irrelevant prologue that is reprised at greater length midway through the film.
Fans can ponder the hidden significance of this material, but the fact that it feels arbitrarily inserted into – rather than an organic part of – the story results in some tepid drama during the first and second acts, when the slow burn burns too slowly with too little happening. Fortunately, when the sinister mystery in the sky finally reveals itself, Nope kick-starts into high gear, delivering more than enough spectacle (in IMAX, no less) to reward patient audiences. The result is less muddled than Us but lacks the sharp satire of Get Out – suggesting that it would have been better if Peele had better integrated his themes into the story or dropped them completely.
Jordan Peele’s Nope Film Review: Text
After an audio overlay and a brief glimpse of a disaster on the set of a sitcom, the story begins with OJ Haywood (“J” for Junior) seeing his father killed by a mysterious rain of small household objects, including keys, loose change, and a nickel that pierces the old man’s eye. (In the first suggestion that the film is up to something, the camera lingers on the motto “In God we trust” – make of that what you will.)
The Haywoods eke out a living by renting horses to Hollywood, but after losing a job on a commercial because of equine misbehavior, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) head to Jupiter’s Claim, a nearby tourist attraction run by Ricky Park (Steven Yuen), to sell him the horse, under the condition that it can be bought back later. Park, who was a child actor on the set of the sitcom disaster, awkwardly intones acquiescence, leaving us to wonder whether the horse (and its predecessors) will be returned.
Strange things happen at the Haywood ranch, including flickering lights and power outages. OJ glimpses a shadow floating through the overcast night sky, and assuming it to be a flying saucer, he and Emerald invest in home security cameras in the hope of becoming rich and famous by capturing photographic proof.
After their initial attempts fail, Angel (Brandon Perea), the tech salesman who installed the cameras, joins them on the ranch to help out. Later, they draft Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), the director of the commercial job they lost, who uses his day gig to finance his own documentaries, which have earned him a reputation for being able to capture shots considered impossible.
Eventually, the thing in the sky reveals itself during Ricky Park’s new outdoor live show, Jupiter’s Claim, resulting in mass casualties. OJ and Emerald conclude that Park thought he could control the thing for entertainment purposes and profit (a rather strange idea from someone with first-hand knowledge of how badly something like this could turn out). His failure confirms OJ and Emerald in their efforts to photograph it. During a prolonged conclusion, they find themselves under attack and fighting for their lives, hoping that the thing’s previous behavior will provide the clues they need to survive.
Jordan Peele’s Nope Film Review: Subtext
There is very little going on dramatically in Nope. The two leads are functional but not particularly fascinating. Keke Palmer brings some energy to Emerald, but the character is an ineffectively self-promoting goof who pitches herself as a “writer-director” to the TV commercial crew that is interested only in the trained horse her family’s business provides. Daniel Kaluuya (until given some action in the third act) has trouble making anything out of OJ; the actor seems constrained by an attempt to mimic the body language of his onscreen father, played by Keith David, who can project quiet authority in way that Kaluuya cannot quite manage.
The lack of exciting lead characters is a problem, because the story boils down to OJ and Emerald deciding to photograph the UFO, which first turns out to be more difficult than expected and later proves to be dangerous. Nevertheless, they persevere without much in the way of soul-searching about whether their goal is worth risking their lives.
This is strange, because the question seems to be at the heart of Nope‘s thematic concerns. Ricky survived the sitcom disaster, in which a chimpanzee went rogue, killing several members of the cast and leaving his young costar disfigured. Apparently having learned nothing from the incident, Ricky (who is engagingly play by Yuen but never shows a hint of PTSD*) more or less recreates the disaster at Jupiter’s Claim.
Presumably the film is making some kind of statement about the risks people endure hoping to grasp the Big Brass Ring of success, which is here referenced by OJ and Emerald as “The Oprah Shot” – the photo that will win them fame and fortune. Unfortunately, the film feels bent out of shape by inclusion of the chimpanzee subplot. It would make sense as a back story for the main characters, but they’re already saddled (sorry!) with the horse ranch, so the chimp is wasted on a supporting character, who winds up with a more vivid history than either of the two leads. Were it not for the fact that Nope is the work of a single writer, one would almost suspect that the script had originated with Ricky in the lead before a torturous journey through Hollywood Development Hell pushed him into the background to make way for the other characters.
Judging from Peele’s promotional interviews, Nope is trying to say something about the voracious nature of ever amplifying spectacle in popular entertainment, which requires bigger and bigger thrills to one-up previous blockbusters. One of the film’s little jokes is that (just as standing still could protect one from a T-Rex in Jurassic Park), OJ can avoid being detected by the thing in the sky by not looking at it. Get it? We could defeat overblown, effects-filled cinematic trash by simply not watching it!
Reading Nope very charitably, one could assume that the message was meant to be more sophisticated than that. The goal may have something to do with contrasting different approaches to sustaining a career in an entertainment industry obsessed with spectacle. The Haywoods are behind-the-scenes people, whose work with horses deliberately evokes old Hollywood westerns (and as Emerald likes to explain, black people’s history in moving pictures goes all the way back to the first assembly of still photos used to create a brief clip of a galloping horse). Ricky, on the other hand, is from the sitcom world, which made him more visible before the disaster derailed his career. Holst seems to have made a name for himself by of capturing footage of animals killing each other, more for sick amusement than any educational purpose.
One could try to trace some line from their careers to the ultimate fate each one faces in the film, but mostly it boils down to the traditional genre structure: chances of survival are directly proportional to how high the actors’ names are listed in the credits.
Jordan Peele’s Nope Film Review: IMAX
Muddled meaning aside, Nope once again shows that Peele knows how to manipulate the elements of the horror genre in order to inflict terror on the audience. In this case, he is working on a much larger canvas, eschewing dark hallways and mysterious dopplegangers for the great wide open, where something strange and dangerous swims through the skies like an airborne version of Bruce the shark from Jaws.
Once Nope moves into its third act, the tension finally ratchets up, and the movie delivers enough action to almost erase memories of the lackluster buildup. The special effects are spectacular, and just as important, they are carefully integrated into the live action so that they never feel like inserts created by an outside effects company. Low angle shots of OJ huddling under cover while the roving camera offers glimpses of the sky above seem to put the audience in the action, lurking beside the characters whose fates remain uncertain until the final fadeout.
The imagery is magnified exponentially in IMAX. Key scenes were shot in the process (not upgraded in post-production). When seen in a real IMAX theatre (not the LIE-Max used in many multiplexes), this results in an expanded image during action: the widescreen aspect ratio of the dialogue scenes (with black bars at the top and bottom, like a letterboxed image on an old-fashioned television) expands vertically to fill the supersized IMAX screen from top to bottom, creating a stunning immersive impact.
When used properly, as it is here, IMAX presents a vista that it is almost like looking through a window. Wide-angle shots are are so clearly detailed that cutting in for close-ups becomes unnecessary, allowing action to play out with a minimum of editing while viewers shift their vision left to right, up and down, searching for the mysterious object behind the clouds or following characters as they race across screen on horseback, their aerial pursuer in hot pursuit, looking like something filmed live, not inserted via CGI.
In a nutshell, if you want to see Nope, see it in IMAX.
Jordan Peele’s Nope Film Review: Conclusion
Nope offers crowd-pleasing entertainment with a personal spin that distinguishes it from other summer spectaculars. It is filled with interesting little touches like Michael Wincott’s enigmatic documentarian, whose “cryptic” comments sound either profound or insane. And Peele generates laughs by tossing in an obvious plot device: he needs a motorcycle for Emerald to escape on, so a motorcycle-riding journalist (supposedly from TZM) shows up out of nowhere and foolishly puts himself in harm’s way trying to shoot video of the thing in the sky.
Had Nope stuck to its knowing combination of horror and winking to the audience (including of course the very title, which sums up the sensible reaction to the onscreen threat), the film could have tightened up its pace and emerged as a complete triumph. Unfortunately, the film seems slightly schizoid – and not just because of the schism between text and subtext. In his previous directorial efforts, Peele was clearly using the genre as a medium to present a message. Nope, at least initially, appears to forego messaging in favor of entertainment, as if the writer-director were delivering a straightforward thrill ride. But he could not quite bring himself to do it, resulting in a film with a split personality: the style and tone are suited to an unpretentious summer blockbuster; the thematic pretentions feel like intrusions from a message movie.
This is puzzling, because cinema history includes many “pure entertainment” films which actually have something to say. To cite one example that is visually referenced in Nope: Jaws is a horror film about a man-eating shark, but its plot (as others have pointed out) parallels Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, in which a threat to tourist trade is ignored by a town more concerned with profits than the safety of its guests, providing a subtext that supports the main narrative.
The difference between Jaws and Nope is best exemplified in Quint’s speech in the former film about the Indianapolis and Ricky’s flashback of the chimpanzee incident in the latter. Both provide history for a supporting character, but Quint’s monologue not only informs our understanding of his personality; it also tells us something about sharks, which is relevant to the main plot. No one walks out of Jaws wondering what Quint’s speech had to do with the rest of the movie.
Ricky’s back story, on the other hand, has nothing to do with flying saucers or aliens (unless you count his fist bump with the murderous chimp, which deliberately resembles the finger tap between Elliot and E.T.). The ape’s rampage provides some effectively brutal horror during the otherwise dull buildup, but its relevancy to the rest of the film is cryptic, requiring fans to search for some hidden significance that would justify its inclusion. We’re all for deeper meaning, but subtext works best when supported by the text. Without that, Nope feels as superficial as the blockbuster entertainment it seeks to satirize. It might have resonated more deeply by simply delivering its spectacular thrills and letting the undertones of its creepy story speak for themselves.
- Since this was posted, my wife has informed me that (1) Ricky’s staring into space while experiencing a flashback is symptomatic of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and (2) people with PTSD may act in illogical ways, such as putting themselves in danger to prove they are not afraid, so Ricky’s attempt to harness the dangerous thing in the sky for entertainment purposes might not be so nonsensical as it appeared to me.
Hollywood Gothique's rating of Nope
The screws turn too slowly with too little happening during the first half of Jordan Peele’s Nope, but the spectacular thrills in the second half are worth the wait. Blame the lackluster early sections on subtext inserted where it doesn’t really fit. Had the script let the story speak for itself, the message might have come through more clearly, without decelerating the pace.
Nope (2022). Universal Pictures & Monkeypaw Productions. Produced, written & directed by Jordan Peel: Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Steven Yeun, Wrenn Schmidt, Keith David, Devon Graye, Terry Notary, Barbie Ferreira, Donna Mills, Oz Perkins. Rated R. 130mins. Release Date: July 22.