Five years later, after his breakthrough success with Get Out, Jordan Peele continues his genre movie streak with Nope, a chilling, intense, and awe-inspiring sci-fi thriller about alien visitors wreaking havoc on humans. An original screenplay that recalls the sci-fi genre works of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, and early M. Night Shyamalan that will endlessly prey on the modern audience’s anxieties and fears of mysterious alien life forces. With a ferocious mix of chilling jump scares and impressive set-pieces, along with stellar visual grandeur and astounding spectacle, Nope is destined to become a critical and commercial success that will certainly find its share of detractors. The film is also destined to become a very notable entry in the sci-fi genre, which audiences and genre lovers will celebrate and remember years from now. I can see film buffs years from now on social media showing screen grabs from this movie and discussing anniversary dates of when this film was released.
As it unfolds, this thrilling sci-fi saga—Peele’s third feature, third horror film, and second film to merge sci-fi with horror—doesn’t quite offer as much overt political subtext as his previous two endeavors, Get Out and Us did. Instead, Peele focuses on subtext with allegory while merging another genre element into the film—the Western—while also paying attention to character depth. Peele continues his narratives of families in crisis that were found in Us. But this time around, Peele plays on the themes of human trauma and attempting to encounter, witness, and even confront the strange things around us before they leave a deeper psychological burden within us. Peele also plays with the power of the image, and how for any “objective” reality to really exist, the image must be captured before it evaporates into distorted memories and half-truths. A theme expertly explored by Michelangelo Antonini in his 1966 masterpiece Blow-Up, based on Julio Cortazar’s short story. This time around, Peele examines the concept of the image that reflects on other ingrained themes such as affliction, grief, and trauma as it all unfolds with nail-biting audacity.
Implicitly, Peele’s take on the film camera becomes a motif in the shadow of the high-tech surveillance state where we now see enemies of our own humankind openly destructing individuals, nations, and even democracy. We also have a great history of how the moving image has captured human history with moon landings, tragic political assassinations, and civil rights marches. We also have more footage and knowledge of UFOs than ever before. Peele’s perfect anecdote to this is to in fact lens any chaos and disruption as it happens, or in this film, referred to as “The perfect shot.” Granted, Nope arrives in a time after we witnessed many adversities and tragedies on camera that have left us to reform. The film also comes in the 21st century where we had other alien invasion films such as Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, and Arrival that all delivered similar portraits of characters attempting to survive alien invasion scenarios. But Peele’s vision here feels even bolder with its harrowing immediacy and meta-commentaries, even when it’s drenched with some plot holes and muddled character motivations, and loses some of its momentum with some missteps in the final act.
For a $68 million special effects sci-fi, it’s impressive how much Peele pulled off. Shot mostly in the desolate desert and focusing on a working-class character. Peele and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Interstellar, Her) employ an astonishing visual style of very rich wide-shots used with the I-Max camera that add to the visceral and raw feeling of the film. Some of the sequences of the characters running in the desert, seeking shelter, as the U.F.O. hovers over them, recall in some astonishing unbroken long takes the visual grandeur of Steven Spielberg, Alfonso Cuaron, and P.T. Anderson. On a visual and technical level, Peele’s visual style is quite sophisticated and extraordinary. Where the action and events feel so vivid and immersive, one can’t help but be astonished by the artistry on display.
Daniel Kaluuya collaborates with Peele in a very low-key and stoic performance as OJ Haywood, who now runs a horse ranch that dates back to the silent era in Hollywood that has been passed onto him after his father (Keith David) passes away from a sudden collapse on a horse that leaves him with lethal head bleeding. OJ is determined to keep the ranch going, even after many obstacles await him with limited resources and taking care of many horses as debts pile up. After his father’s death, his younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) shows up and helps him with his animal wrangling service on film sets. Her duty is to announce protocol when the horse is on set, but she’s often late, and her lack of motivation irritates OJ. While on the ranch together, Emerald prefers to listen to old vinyl records, live life, and then help her brother OJ out on the ranch. Palmer channels her character quite effectively here as she brings a lot of great humor and charm to her character.
OJ ends up witnessing a mysterious object flying in and out of clouds hovering over his ranch—something that feels and moves creepy—in which OJ claims that this could be their “Oprah moment.” Their goal is to purchase high-end home surveillance cameras to demonstrate the existence of other life forms in the universe, with the hope of selling the footage for a large sum of money. Things go awry once the power goes out and other things don’t quite suffice as planned. They end up encountering Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child Hollywood star who runs a small cowboy amusement park on OJ’s ranch. The character of Ricky, played by Yeun in a very memorable performance, holds some of the strongest characterizations in the film. He has undergone some great experiences from his life as a kid movie star, who loves to gloat about his glory days on movie sets, but who also holds a very traumatic TV show that involved a kid’s sitcom show where a chimpanzee violently attacked Jupe’s fellow co-stars on set after the power went off. That could or couldn’t be related to the UFO that flutters over the clouds of the LA desert decades later. Peele leaves a lot of ambiguities, or rather muddled conclusions, with the Jupe character. Regardless, the flashback scene involving the chimpanzee is a very tense and grueling scene where most of the horror takes place off screen. The character of Jupe also holds a Tarantino vibe, especially with Rick Dalton as a washed-up actor trying to recapture his days of youth that were crushed by trauma, in which he’s trying to find closure in the strangest of ways. This delivers themes of how humans always attempt to tame and control other species, which leads to brutal consequences. It’s pretty thoughtful actually. Its main flaw is that it doesn’t give Jupe motivation and he becomes more of a thematic device than a full fleshed character. There needed to be more scenes to build up why he wrangled the show other than being a motif.
As the film unravels, OJ and Emerald bring in Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), an electronics department store clerk who helps OJ set up the security cameras around their home on the ranch. After finding out what they needed the camera for, Angel ends up keeping a close eye on the footage even when he’s back working at the store. OJ and Kiki end up calling Antlers Hoist (Michael Wincott), an industry cinematographer who agrees to help them get the perfect shot with his hand-cranked IMAX camera, which becomes quite meta since the film is shot on actual IMAX cameras. Wincott, who often plays menacing roles such as The Crow and Strange Days, turns in a very charming performance here.
There are many suspenseful highlights in the film, shot mostly with chapters and vignettes. The framing, editing, and pacing of many of these breathtaking sequences are impeccable, echoing the staging of a Spielberg sci-fi film like War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or earlier M. Night Shyamalan. The Interlude with the horror staging echoes the creepy atmosphere of John Carpenter or even Hitchcock, which is built mainly on the unnerving psychology of the eerie sounds and quick glimpses of the UFO.
There is a lot of terror in store in the film, but there is also some strong character depth. But when the end comes—Peele continues his craftmanship well into the final frame—it arrives with great buildup, but the payoff of what the UFO becomes isn’t the most satisfying and couod leave the audience puzzled. The conclusion might leave some baffled, though still satisfying, as it does wrap up to the earned conclusion that Peele has been working on, in which he refreshes the genre after all the overdone, bombastic climaxes we have gotten over the years.
While the film does fall apart in the end—Peele appears to have this problem where his conclusions just don’t equal out to the greatness of the first two acts. However, most of the third act impresses, and the film does offer an emotional, if not illogical, conclusion to the movie. The finale brings up a lot of questions due to the genre expectations that we have become accustomed to, and some will certainly hold distain towards it for that. Shortcomings and missteps aside, these are minor quibbles that don’t detract from the technical brilliance and visual grandeur of what’s come before, and the film is the ideal summer moviegoing experience that reminds us why we enjoy summer blockbusters in the first place. Peele achieves this through sheer spectacle, turning thrills into a thrilling journey based on the power of image and familial bond. Nope is certainly a high point of the summer movie season.