Premise: The residents of a lonely gulch in inland California bear witness to an uncanny and chilling discovery.
After an encounter with a UFO above the horse ranch they run, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) asks his sister Em (Keke Palmer), “What’s a bad miracle? They got a word for that?” The bad feeling and sense of doom that covers the ranch is merely confirmed by the UFO’s emergence in the sky. For it’s been present in OJ’s world since his father’s sudden death six months ago. OJ has no passion for the horse training and his sister has aspirations of fame that relegates horse training to being a side gig at best. But the siblings quickly figure this “bad miracle” over Haywood Hollywood Horses may be an opportunity to turn things around and catapult them into fame and fortune.
Is there a word for a bad miracle? Em’s response to OJ is simply, “Nope.”
Nope, the brazenly confident third feature from Jordan Peele, is an entertaining alien horror film that blends the filmmaker’s penchants for atmosphere and social commentary in a richer, more satisfying way than his previous film, Us. Nope is all about spectacle and how entertainers will exploit that which they don’t understand or respect, all for the pursuit of fame. By contrasting the experiences of the Haywoods with those of nearby live performance carnival park Jupiter’s Claim, Peele draws a sharp image of competing facets of the entertainment industry. The addition of tech guru Angel (Brandon Perea) and aged director Holst (Michael Wincott) to the roster helps complete this vision of entertainment and entertainers alike.
Jupiter’s Claim is run by former child actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who found fame on a series called Kid Sheriff but whose credits also include a sitcom in the 90s that gained infamy following a tragedy on set. Jupe loves spectacle and has an eerie shrine to the 90s sitcom massacre he survived as a child tucked away in a secret room in his office. He is the epitome of the word showman, as he speaks about the violence after casually mentioning that he usually charges people just to see the shrine.
It’s Jupe’s approach to the entertainment he provides that helps mold Nope‘s cynical view of showmanship and the exploitation therein. Jupe is a man who seemingly cares not for the animals in his employ nor does he fully appreciate the thing in the sky he is looking to co-opt for profit. Despite seeing firsthand how quickly things can go awry when dealing with non-human variables, Jupe still views the UFO (not to mention the animals on the ground as well) as props for his spectacle, worthy of exploiting for his own personal gain.
In contrast, Haywood Hollywood Horses are the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood and boast they are descendants of the first person to be shot on film in a two second clip of a man riding a horse. As Emerald says, history tells you who invented film and filmmaking but neglects to mention the industry’s first movie star, stuntman, and animal wrangler. It’s a bigger piece of the narrative as the Haywoods find they don’t have the respect their father had when working on sets. Entitled performers ignore safety guidelines in the presence of OJ while also vapidly connecting him to OJ Simpson when being introduced.
The Haywoods seek to document the UFO activity and plan to reap the fame and fortune it would presumably yield. Yet, they aren’t the fame-hungry showmen of Jupiter’s Claim. Not really. They want to get rich off the UFO activity so they may have a better life. It’s a more personal stake of greed in that it’s not contingent on using animals or the UFO directly for their gain. In other words, they are not about spectacle for spectacle’s sake. Given they are the descendants of filmmaking royalty that has been largely ignored, their desire to make a name for themselves is a lot deeper than most.
Rounding out the entertainment commentary in Nope is Angel (the electronics tech the Haywoods hire for the camera equipment) and Holst (the aged director they ask to shoot the UFO). Angel is a delight as the movie’s main source of comic relief. He’s a young and fairly awkward guy with a ton of tech knowledge and big ideas about alien life but seemingly no direction. Meanwhile, Holst is a well-known cinematographer who can “shoot the impossible” but has found the most impossible shots evasive throughout his life.
While Angel delivers a lot of heart and Holst gives the gruff of experience to the film, the two feel slightly undercooked overall. Angel’s comic relief is endearing and his concerns about whether what they’re hoping to achieve will help people or not is admirable. But as a complete arc, his role seems not to fit quite as well in the grand scheme of things. Likewise, Holst’s inclusion in the 3rd act is the one area of Nope that isn’t properly built up. We have a scene where Emerald is trying to sell him on the scale of the opportunity they have in front of them and that’s mostly all we have about Holst. The film would have benefited from expanding on these supporting characters just slightly.
As for the spectacle of Nope, it’s magnificent. The tone and atmosphere captured by Peele and the gorgeous photography by DP Hoyte Van Hoytema is perhaps the film’s greatest asset. The open and isolated location of both the horse ranch and Jupiter’s Claim creates a thrilling sandbox for Peele to play in and the space is utilized to great effect. When the film reaches it’s climax, the scale is expanded and Peele doesn’t skimp on the thrills.
As he did with Get Out and Us, Nope further proves when we watch a Jordan Peele film, we are in the hands of one hell of a unique genre storyteller. Although Peele’s best work is still his debut, Nope demonstrates considerable growth in his talent behind the camera in terms of scale and overall design. Nope is a spectacle we won’t soon forget.
Nope opens in theaters July 22, 2022.
About the Writer: Matt Hurt is the creator of ObsessiveViewer.com. He also created, hosts, and produces The Obsessive Viewer, Anthology, and Tower Junkies podcasts. He is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association and lives in Indianapolis with his cat Pizza Roll.
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