Nope is undeniably ambitious and cribs from the best, but its determined obliqueness and prioritizing of subtext over genre thrills make for a rather sluggish affair.
For better or, perhaps, for worse, Jordan Peele has become the most prominent name in mainstream horror filmmaking. Get Out quite correctly upended the genre, but it also ushered in a wave of scary movies that clumsily attempted to recreate that film’s almost alchemical mix of fright and politics. Peele’s follow-up, Us, was a genuinely gruesome work of impeccable craft that was nonetheless rendered incoherent by its very premise. And now we have Nope, perhaps his most ambitious work, and yet surprisingly also his most disorganized and shallow.
OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are struggling a bit to successfully run the family business — horse wrangling for films, television, and commercials — after the sudden and mysterious death of their father (an all-too-briefly present Keith David). They might even have to sell the whole ranch to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), a former child star running an old-west novelty park the next valley over. But hope might potentially spring when OJ sees what he thinks might be a UFO streaking through the clouds, and upon hearing of this, Emerald — an aspiring actress herself — convinces him that capturing a concrete image of whatever it is and selling it could be their meal ticket. They’re joined by testy, fidgety electronics store clerk Angel (Brandon Perea), who unceremoniously horns in on the siblings’ plan, and eventually also by the hilariously named Antlers Holst, a vaunted movie cinematographer played delightfully by ’90s bad guy icon Michael Wincott, who has imbued this funny character with a bit of a taste for Herzogian ecstasy even though every single word out of this wonderful actor’s mouth is a sardonic growl. Anyway, spoiler alert: everybody gets way more than they bargained for.
It’s immediately apparent that Peele is plotting a trajectory similar to the classic Spielberg spectacles Jaws and Close Encounters, and unsurprisingly Nope is a formally exacting, carefully crafted work. Recruiting Christopher Nolan’s regular DP Hoyte van Hoytema, Peele makes superb use of the landscape’s wide spaces (the film rarely strays from the Middle of Nowhere), as well as the quintessential “Spielberg Faces” of his cast as they stare up in amazement at… well, you’ll find out. He also sticks to the old “what you don’t see is scarier” chestnut, which frankly proves unwise after a bit here, as repeated encounters with whatever the heck it is become monotonous. In fact, Nope’s undoing is its insistence on remaining oblique.
Not only is Nope a crushingly long 135 minutes, but those minutes lack even the pretense of narrative momentum. The initial appearances of the UFO are repetitive without building on our understanding of what’s going on. That’s a deliberate but fatal choice, and it upsettingly turns out it’s just because the big reveal is a dead end in and of itself. At this length and because Peele insists on holding back, the movie simply feels padded. There’s an equally lugubrious sub-thread here about the old sitcom Jupe acted in as a kid, which has become notorious because the show’s chimpanzee star went berserk and beat several of his human co-stars to death in front of a live studio audience. Combine that with the Haywoods’ business of animal training, and an even deeper throughline about below-the-line and background talent and their contributions to filmmaking, and you can start to see some of Peele’s concepts congealing. Individual moments stand out — a nighttime encounter in a barn, the attack on the sitcom set, a mysterious interloper on a motorcycle. And Peele and Hoytema have concocted some truly indelible images, like a blood-soaked house in a rainstorm, or a desert peppered with those creepy, inflatable tube men that flail about at used car lots, or a mysterious stranger with a spooky and shiny bike helmet. Even the UFO itself, when it’s finally revealed, has a fascinating design. But what finally comes together out of all of this just isn’t strong enough to sustain so little story executed at such a sluggish pace.
Beyond an aspiration to the aforementioned Spielberg influences, it feels like Peele’s goal is to make a zippy little genre creature feature along the lines of 1990’s seminal, still-underappreciated Tremors, also about a couple of cast-offs struggling to make ends meet who run into something completely unknown. But Tremors is a low-budget 90-minute genre blast that nobody saw coming, not a two-hour-plus, heavily hyped event film from someone we’re already hailing as a new horror master. Nope could have used a lot less of Peele’s ambitious but misguided and utterly cumbersome jabs at subtext, and a lot of more formal economy and old-fashioned, ruthless narrative pleasures.