It’s not easy melding scares and smarts, thrills and thematic import—just ask Jordan Peele, whose acclaimed debut Get Out ably pulled off that balancing act, but whose subsequent efforts, be it the metaphorically clunky Us or the leaden The Twilight Zone reboot, prioritized the latter at the expense of the former. After those recent missteps, however, Peele finds himself back on solid footing with Nope, a science-fiction horror show that flourishes on its own monster-movie terms, and then laces its mayhem with pointed and invigorating undercurrents. It’s large-scale filmmaking done right, and proof that when he’s on his game, Peele remains one of contemporary cinema’s most skillful genre artists.
The perils of staging and capturing spectacles—especially those involving untamable animals—as well as the culpability of those exhibitions’ audiences is at the heart of Nope, which opens with a nightmarish vision of a bloodied monkey on a sitcom soundstage, the set in ruins and a human costar’s body lying motionless nearby. The simian’s stare at the camera before the action cuts to black is the first of many instances in which Peele highlights the process of watching (often suggested by cornea and lens motifs), ostensibly as a means of implicating viewers in the craziness to come. Consequently, it’s no wonder that the success of the story’s hero hinges on his understanding that, when confronted by wild and deadly creatures, the key to survival is avoiding direct eye contact—something that here feels like a challenge, given that Peele spends the majority of the film teasing us with otherworldly images hidden just out of sight.
That may make Nope sound like tough sledding, but the trick Peele plays is evoking such ideas while avoiding the heavy-handed symbolism and narrative twists that defined his prior efforts. The writer/director’s latest concentrates on Otis Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), aka OJ, who works with his father Otis Sr. (Keith David) on their Haywood’s Hollywood Horses ranch, whose steeds are trained for show business duty. When inexplicable tragedy strikes, OJ is forced to take over the family operation, yet he’s not very good at it. Between a green screen-enabled shoot that goes awry, and the lack of help afforded by his self-interested sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), OJ winds up in dire straits, and thus compelled to sell his stallions to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who endured the aforementioned sitcom calamity and now owns the adjacent “Jupiter’s Claim” Western theme park.
As explicated by Emerald’s sales pitch for Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, she and her brother are descendants of the Black horseback rider immortalized in the very first motion picture—making them distant movie royalty, even if their ancestor never received credit for his pioneering achievement. Having established this footnote about Black cinematic erasure, Nope proceeds to provide OJ and Emerald with a chance to author their own groundbreaking cinematic image. The subject in question this time, however, doesn’t involve men and earthly beasts but, rather, extraterrestrial visitors, since on a quiet evening on the ranch, OJ spies something unbelievable: a UFO soaring silently through the nighttime air. This appearance is paired with the area’s electricity going out, including cell phones, which makes OJ think that perhaps this craft was responsible for his father’s untimely demise. There may be no word for it, but OJ recognizes that this entire scenario is akin to a “bad miracle.”
He's right! And yet in order to save the ranch and put themselves in the record books, OJ and Emerald decide to take a perfect, crystal-clear, irrefutable snapshot of this intergalactic ship (dubbed, amusingly, “the Oprah shot”). To do that, they purchase a bounty of surveillance cameras and equipment that results in a partnership with Angel Torres (Brandon Pereda), an electronics store techie who’s convinced by a pillowy cloud that refuses to budge that the siblings are onto something amazing. Peele convinces us as well, doling out swift glimpses of the gleaming flying saucer, whose arrival is often preceded by shrieking whistles, screams and roars, and which glides through the atmosphere without making a sound. More ominous still, the vessel is hungry, sucking up huge gusts of sand (creating mini-tornados) and any available horses and people into its underside’s gaping circular maw.
After valiantly trying and failing to accomplish their goal, OJ and Emerald enlist the services of Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a celebrated cinematographer whose fondness for nature documentaries inspires him to accept the pair’s invitation to visit the ranch and film a truly unruly behemoth. The gravelly voiced Wincott lends both creepy-cool gravity and menace to Nope, highlighted by his solo rendition of Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater.” Once Antlers begins production with an archaic crank-powered camera, his stoicism meshes nicely with Kaluuya’s minimalist stoutness, Palmer’s anxious brashness, and Yeun’s haunted showmanship. The cast imbues these increasingly apocalyptic circumstances with empathetic charisma, such that when a final plan is hatched to make the UFO a celluloid star—and, hopefully, to bring it to its knees—it’s impossible not to root for their characters’ against-the-odds triumph.
More than anything, though, the film thrives because of Peele’s formidable formal talents. The director’s clean, expansive widescreen panoramas of sky and desert create a sense of imposing malevolence, while his intense close-ups keep the focus squarely on the terror and desperation of his flesh-and-blood protagonists. His probing cinematography (via Hoyte van Hoytema) routinely tilts upwards to scan the heavens for signs of the sneaky UFO, as well as immerses itself in the thick of the chaos—and, even, the belly of the beast. Like M. Night Shyamalan, another auteur of original, thought-provoking supernatural blockbusters, Peele has a gift for generating intense, dreadful portent with a silky pan or unexpected cut, and he operates at peak-performance levels in Nope, whose vistas marry the real and the unreal, the grand and the intimate, and the futuristic and the old-school.
What Peele delivers is a rollicking and unnerving summer spectacular of big ideas and even bigger kicks—an alien invasion saga that questions whether it’s wise to gaze at the monstrous, and then dares you to look away.