2022, R, 131 min. Directed by Jordan Peele. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., July 22, 2022
Every horror film needs a reason for the characters to stay in danger. In Nope, the third film by writer/director Jordan Peele, it's fear: not fear of whatever menace is lurking in the clouds above the Hayward Hollywood Horses ranch, but of falling away from the periphery of celebrity. OJ (Kaluuya) is trying to keep what's left of the movie-animal-wrangling business going after the bizarre death of his father, while his endlessly irritating and selfish sister, Emerald (Palmer), wants to be famous but she's not sure why or how. Next door, former kid star Ricky "Jupe" Park (Yeun) has gone from sitcom fame to running a rinky-dink Wild West theme park. All three end up obsessed with that shadow in the clouds with a taste for horse abduction, dragging Fry's store assistant Angel (Perea) and deranged cinematographer Antlers Holst (Wincott) into intriguing danger as they try to get their Oprah moment – the photo that will make them rich, proving interstellar life has visited Earth.
Peele's debut, the stellar horror-tinged racial satire Get Out, was a fascinating new director working with one of the year's best scripts. His follow-up, bloated class commentary Us, saw Peele effortlessly expand his vision and capability as a filmmaker, but the script felt unfinished, a draft or two away from making all the points he was trying to make. Nope doesn't rectify that divide: Instead, in some ways, Peele is an even more daring director, but the end result is even more undercut by script choices.
There's nothing accidental in Peele's work, and it is often spectacular. Much as he perfected a mood of clingy claustrophobia in Get Out, Nope is heavy with an ominous slowness, adding flitters of terror whenever there's a brief sighting of whatever it is staring down from the clouds. Yet there are also undoubtedly some decisions that may feel awkward: a heavy dependence on day-for-night cinematography, a stripped-down and low sound mix that brings M. Night Shyamalan's similarly themed Signs to ear and mind, and a long series of fake-out jump scares. Those seem like Peele's way of saying, "This won't be that kind of sci-fi horror," but after a while they can seem almost grating – especially since those scenes, again, owe a big debt to Shyamalan's 2002 homage to 1950s alien invasion flicks, and its perfect jump scare.
There's one more echo of Signs, this time deeper in the narrative. Shyamalan sets up a series of convenient coincidences that he can attribute to an unseen higher power. Peele builds the same kind of mechanic, but it's the audience, not the characters, that has to make that leap of faith.
Nope is spectacular and intriguing, but also frustratingly incomplete. Peele, like Shyamalan, knows how to take established cinematic tropes from the most wildly and unfairly despised B-movie genre flicks and turn them into something more palatable to broader audiences and fascinating to film buffs. But, much as with Us, Nope feels like it never quite draws its themes – of celebrity, of the credulous observer believing their camera keeps them safe, of our dangerous obsession with being seen – together into a truly coherent thesis. He also still loves his obscure Gen X references, and just as Us relied on knowing what Hands Across America was, there's a whole speech from Jupe that oddly depends on remembering Chris Kattan's Mr. Peepers act from Saturday Night Live.
But when Peele gets it right, it's still phenomenal. The reveal of what the menace is shows he's been keeping up with current Fortean studies, and his grasp of captivating imagery – in this case, the ranch covered with those inflatable wobbly guys you see in front of car dealerships – remains peerless. But having a new idea for a sci-fi creature feature isn't always enough. Just ask the directors of The Monolith Monsters, in which giant crystals menace SoCal. Well, at least some scumbag from TMZ gets what's coming to them.