Nope – movie review

Jordan Peele, the creative force behind Get Out! and Us, returns with his third feature film as director, Nope. This is one out of the box – a film that’s oddly both more conventional and more daring than his other work. And at a time when the box office is dominated by sequels and re-boots, this represents a fresh take on a rather stale genre.

Peele expands his cinematic palette here, drawing on other work to flesh out his vision. He prominently references Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, surprisingly, Jaws), and Westerns (Sidney Poitier’s Buck and the Preacher, among others). He also refines the style of his earlier films, which combines tension, horror and humour in a heady combination.

After a bewildering opening scene (explained later in the film), we meet OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). They’ve inherited a business supplying horses for Hollywood movie shoots from their father Otis (Keith David). Otis was mysteriously killed a few months back, and OJ is still coming to terms with it. Emerald however has bigger plans and views the horse business as a side hustle, rather than the main game. To make matters worse, the business is struggling, leading OJ to sell off some of his horses to Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Stephen Yeun). Ricky is a former child TV star who now runs an amusement park near the Haywood ranch in Agua Dulce, California (yes, it’s a real place). OJ hopes to be able to turn the business around, and buy back his horses.

Meanwhile, strange events have been happening near the ranch. They include unexplained electrical and wi-fi blackouts, clouds that don’t move and dark shapes in the night sky. Emerald convinces herself these freaky occurrences are due to UFOs. She convinces OJ to spend some money on cameras to get definitive proof – the “Oprah shot” – of a UFO over their property. The perhaps-too-helpful assistant at the electronics store, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) – a firm believer in UFOs – offers to set up the system. But when their efforts are thwarted via a mix of negligence and bad luck, Emerald decides to reach out to a professional – storied Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).

For all the UFO trappings of the early scenes, the film actually turns out to be something very different. While it’s certainly sci-fi-adjacent, Peele seems to be more interested in how humans interact with the natural world. That interest would explain how the very different story threads within the film come together to create a cohesive whole. Along the way, he takes some sidetracks into history, the filmmaking business, pop culture and the shallowness of social media. But even the most cursory search will show a huge variety of different opinions circulating about the themes in Nope. Is it about late-stage capitalism? The corrosive nature of fame? Police brutality? Hollywood itself? There are plenty of options to choose from.

If you’re interested, Peele peppers the film with a myriad of film references, to both his own and others’ work. He also introduces his own kind of cinematic grammar into the mix. As just one small example, note how in the climactic scenes, OJ wears orange clothing while Emerald wears green. He builds tension – and ultimately terror – carefully. If you watch closely, most of the really violent moments occur off-screen. When things really get going toward the end, he drops the pretense and goes for full-on spectacle – something Peele said in an interview he was going for. On that front, the film certainly looks stunning, thanks to shooting on IMAX cameras and the eye of DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tenet).

Nope sees Peele teaming up with his Get Out! star Daniel Kaluuya again. For whatever reason, Kaluuya rather underplays OJ, making him a difficult character to relate to. But that allows room for Keke Palmer (Hustlers) to shine as the resourceful Emerald. Brandon Perea lends solid support as Angel, while Michael Wincott (Hitchcock) chews scenery magnificently as the slightly unhinged Holst. But the performance of the film for me was Steven Yeun (Minari) as the haunted Ricky.

At a time when a lot of popular cinema feels like fast food, Nope felt somehow nourishing to me. This complex, occasionally baffling, occasionally hilarious movie is the perfect antidote to sequel-itis. Nope is, pure and simple, a piece of real cinema.

David Edwards

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