For his third feature, Jordan Peele ambitiously sets out to create a sci-fi spectacle, and he succeeds greatly with the magic he’s able to create in Nope. If there’s one thing I would say to readers out there before I get into the nuts and bolts of Peele’s latest (and just know that there will be no spoilers), it’s that if you think that you’re in for a traditional alien invasion story with Nope, you most definitely are not. For some out there, that might be an issue. But for this writer, that’s probably what I loved about it most. Don’t worry - there’s no bait and switch here. There are aliens. But what Nope really is about are powerful entities that are hellbent on consumption, with little regard for the lives they are affecting, and we see that play out in both fantastical and realistic ways throughout Peele’s thought-provoking screenplay.
Nope opens with a passage from the Hebrew Bible: “I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle,” and then cuts to an extremely disturbing scene from the 1990s when a live TV taping has gone horribly awry. Peele then brings the story back to present day and transports viewers to a remote ranch in Agua Dulce, California where OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) trains horses that are used in Hollywood for a myriad of purposes, a family business that he now maintains on behalf of his father Otis Sr. (Keith David). Nearby the family ranch is Jupiter’s Claim, a western-themed family fun town that is centered around Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who uses his celebrity status to lure tourists into visiting the attraction.
And in this remote locale located just 40 minutes outside of Tinsel Town, the place known for making the impossible possible through visual entertainment, the unimaginable is happening for real: there is an alien presence looming over the area and it’s the cause of a series of unbelievable occurrences that OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are determined to capture the otherworldly entity on camera in hopes of garnering worldwide attention. Along for the ride are an eager Fry’s employee named Angel (Brandon Perea) and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), an eccentric film director who is constantly looking for ways to capture authenticity. And making a movie about real aliens is just the way to do it.
That’s about all that I’m prepared to reveal about the plot points of Nope, as I want to help preserve the ride for everyone else out there. But as I mentioned, if you’re thinking that Peele is going to deliver just another run-of-the-mill alien invasion movie, the response to that is in the film’s title. When it comes to delivering the big screen dazzle that one would want from an epic cinematic excursion in science fiction, Peele definitely hits a home run with Nope, as there are several sequences in the film that truly left my jaw agape in wonder.
But what really made Nope so impactful were all these flourishes that Peele integrates into his story that address a number of issues that have been plaguing Hollywood for more than a century now. I won’t go into too many specifics, because it could give away certain plot revelations, but throughout Nope, Peele’s narrative examines how the industry has abused and mismanaged Black talent for more than 100 years now, how it historically has disregarded the safety and the majesty of the animals that it utilizes in its projects (animal lovers, do not fret: there is no animal abuse in Nope), and how the entertainment world often overlooks the lingering trauma that can impact its younger talent for the rest of their lives as well. The alien entity that is wreaking havoc in Nope is also an allegory for certain aspects of Hollywood, but talking about it more would be way too spoilery. The short version is that once you see how everything plays out with this extraterrestrial presence, it’s an element of Nope that has really stuck with me for well over a week now for so many reasons that make me excited as both a movie fan and a sci-fi aficionado to boot.
Suffice to say, I love just how far Peele is able to push things in Nope by creating a story that is still endlessly entertaining in some traditional ways, but also isn’t afraid to push a few necessary buttons as well. It’s also worth noting that for as “serious” as Nope is, there so many little touches that made it so enjoyable for me: it shows some love to The Scorpion King, there are a few hat tips to Us (I didn’t catch any for Get Out, but I’m excited to watch it again to see if I can find some nods the second time around), it features Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night in one of the film’s best sequences, it somehow thrusts Chris Kattan into hero status with a mere mention, and I’m sure it’s a reference to another movie, but there’s a motorbike rider who truly felt like he just rode right off the set of The Wraith, and all of that just made me giddy as someone who loves popular culture.
As far as the performances in Nope go, everyone is truly excellent but I think the standout is Keke Palmer, who is like 12 kinds of amazing. And considering I’ve been such a big fan of hers since her Scream Queen days, I was thrilled to see Palmer get such a prime platform to shine here in such a huge way. Kaluuya’s performance is almost the antithesis of what we get from Palmer, as he’s quietly contemplative, almost like he’s playing out a game of chess five moves in advance, and Palmer’s character is vibrant and very much in the moment. Both Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott add a lot to Nope with their performances too in very different ways (Perea’s characters brings a bit of humor into the mix, and Wincott - who blew me away - adds a wondrously eccentric touch of flair), and Steven Yeun’s portrayal of this guy who essentially survived growing up in Hollywood and how that continues to influence his life well into adulthood is intriguing, and there are some great subtleties to whenever Yeun is reminiscing about his days in the spotlight.
On a technical level, Nope is a truly marvelous creation by so many creatives working at the top of their game. I’m not typically one of those “so-and-so needs an Oscar for this” critics when I’m reviewing, but if cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema doesn’t earn some accolades during the awards season, it’ll be a damn shame because the camera work here is completely astounding, especially in the shots where the cast is seemingly dwarfed by the landscape around them. Just stunning. The sound mix is also a work of art (seriously, there were times where it felt like the sound was inside my soul, it was that thunderously intense), Michael Abels score is phenomenal and Alex Boivard deserves a lot of praise for her costuming choices in Nope too, especially with Keke Palmer’s character and there are some great things going on with the outfits that Steven Yeun wears while cavorting around Jupiter’s Claim as well.
Even though I was completely enthralled by Nope, I do have one quibble with it in that I think there were elements of Ricky “Jupe” Park’s storyline that felt like they sort of fell to the wayside at a certain point in the movie, so when we pick up with Yeun’s character at a certain point, I was a bit mystified on just how exactly we got to that point. That being said, that lack of development wasn’t enough to derail my overall enjoyment and I can only hope that perhaps there’s more to be seen in a future extended cut of Nope.
While I think that the easy comparison is to call Nope Peele’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (and there certainly are direct comparisons, for sure), his third feature felt a bit more like Peele’s own homage to what Spielberg was able to achieve with Jaws, where he plays the sci-fi elements a bit close to the chest and then unleashes their ravenous fury on viewers precisely when the time is right, resulting in several truly nightmarish sequences that are not easy to shake off. Undoubtedly, Nope is Peele’s most grandiose and ballsiest directorial effort to date, and while mileage may vary for some viewers, I’m someone who loves when a filmmaker isn’t afraid to challenge my expectations, and Peele achieves just that with his latest. Like his previous efforts, there’s much to unpack when it comes to Nope and I look forward to repeat viewings in the future so that I can continue to discover all the greatness that he has layered into this project.
Movie Score: 4.5/5