Right off the bat: Nope doesn't put a dent in Jordan Peele's reputation as mastermind of horror, but it doesn't do much to add to it either.
Long acclaimed for his work as a sketch comedian, Peele proved himself to be a formidable horror filmmaker right out of the gate when his 2017 debut Get Out won the Oscar for best original screenplay as well as the Saturn Award for best horror film. Us, his follow-up in 2019, showed that his penchant for socially conscious horror was not a fluke. The film may have received a less fevered response than Get Out, but it was every bit as meticulously crafted with its motif work, taut writing and artistry.
So, what does his third film, Nope, add to Peele’s succinct but potent directorial record?
The film is not as piercing as Get Out, nor is it as eerie as Us. In it, he again subverts classic horror tropes to deliver scathing social commentary, but it does break new ground for Peele, who has taken a stride into science fiction to make an atypical alien film that provides plenty of chills and food for thought — even if it is somewhat slack in its writing.
The film features a solid cast including Alice actress Keke Palmer, The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun, The Crow’s Michael Wincott, and The OA actor Brandon Perea in a breakout role. Front and centre, however, is Daniel Kaluuya. After starring in Get Out, the actor returns to work with Peele, sustaining a pairing that may become as dependable as Martin Scorsese’s with Leonardo DiCaprio, or Tim Burton’s with Johnny Depp.
In Nope, Kaluuya’s restrained performance is as impactful as ever, but the makings of his character, Otis Junior 'OJ' Haywood, doesn’t leave as much of an impression when compared with Get Out’s Chris Washington.
It wasn’t just OJ that suffered from this. It took effort to feel emotionally invested in most of the film’s characters, despite the prowess of their actors. Although Palmer and Perea deliver exceptional and energetic performances as Emerald Haywood and Angel Torres, their characters felt a bit flat and lacked substance.
The most interesting ones were, perhaps, Yeun’s Jupe and Keith David’s Otis Senior, who has no more than five minutes screen time throughout the two-hour film, but has a symbolically compelling place in the movie.
It is between these two characters that, perhaps, Nope’s intent can be best understood.
Jupe was a star child actor in a sitcom titled Gordy’s Home until his chimpanzee co-star went on a murderous rampage, killing one castmate and injuring another. As a man, he has learnt to capitalise on his trauma, bottling his anguish while letting people pay big money to see the bloodied props from the show. One couple, he reveals, paid $50,000 dollars to sleep in the secret room where he stores the morbid memorabilia.
The idea of the spectacle, or what people are willing to put on the line for it, is a focal point of the film. Even the confrontation with the alien force in the film serves as a reflection of mankind’s fixation with spectacles.
Another driving force in the Nope concept is the marginalisation of black talent in film history. The Haywoods in the film are descendants of a fictional animal trainer who was the first person to appear in film but has long gone uncredited. The character is loosely based on historical truth and derived from the unidentified jockey in the 1887 motion picture plates Animal Locomotion by Eadweard Muybridge, considered by many to be the forefather of film.
“We’ve got the first movie star of all time and it’s a black man we don’t know,” Peele told GQ in July. “We haven’t looked. In a lot of ways, the movie became a response to that first film.”
In the film, Otis Senior has tried to bolster his ancestor’s legacy through his Haywood Horses enterprise, training the mammals to appear in films.
It is a business he has managed to sustain despite considerable heartache in the industry — that is, until his death in a freak accident, in which random objects fell from the sky, including a coin, which pierced his skull.
The Haywood children take on the mantle of continuing the business, particularly OJ, who soon finds himself in dire financial straits and resorts to selling several of his father’s horses to Jupe. However, after encountering a UFO one night, OJ and his sister decide to capture the flying saucer on film. They would be the first to capture undeniable proof of alien existence on film. It is an act that would help OJ retrieve his father’s horses and, at once, rebel against his ancestor’s erasure from film history.
What begins as a lacklustre and uninspired depiction of the extra-terrestrial becomes, in the film’s final moments, one of the most mesmerising alien encounters in cinema.
Overall, Nope is an entertaining and thrilling watch. The film is replete with thoughtful artistic choices that we’ve come to expect from Peele. Expansive, tableauesque scenes of rural California are juxtaposed with claustrophobic moments within the alien abdomen. An airy, string-driven soundtrack is interposed with the haunting whispering of the wind and the neighing of terrified horses. The medium of film is itself examined and confronted and there is plenty to ponder about as the credits roll.
But the fact remains that when comparing the film with other titles in Peele’s oeuvre, Nope is a popcorn flick.