In a few short years Jordan Peele has established himself as a director who consistently strives to buck the conventions of genre filmmaking. Whether calling out the hypocrisy of white liberals in his brilliant Oscars-winning film Get Out or using bible verses to get audiences thinking about the duality of human existence in Us, his films feel unique from anything else in theatres. This trend continues with Peele’s latest work Nope, a science fiction thriller that sets the tension from its opening moments.
Like his previous film Us, Peele uses television and the bible, in this case a reference to Nahum 3:6, which says “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle,” to provide key clues needed to decipher the central narrative. Opening on the set of a 90’s family sitcom, it is clear something terrible has occurred. A bloody chimpanzee, named Gordy, paces beside a body whose upper torso is concealed by a piece of furniture. The creepy image gets even more disturbing when Gordy turns to look directly at the camera, as if he just clued in that he is being watched.
This inability for the audience to look away, including our obsession with making a production of other people’s trauma, is one of the many themes explored in much greater detail throughout the course of the film. However, to understand how the tragic events of a previous decade connect to the strange events in the film’s present, one must find all the puzzle pieces that Peele has scattered throughout Nope. Peele leaves this investigation to siblings Otis Jr. “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), average folks who have no idea of the magnitude of events they will be caught up in. Coming from a long line of Hollywood horse trainers, the only Black ones in the industry, OJ is struggling to keep the family business afloat after his father (Keith David) is mysteriously killed by a coin that fell from the sky.
Recently losing a Hollywood gig, after an onset mishap involving his horse Lucky, OJ has been reduced to selling some of his family’s prize horses to fellow ranchers like Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who owns a cowboy/alien hybrid theme park. While Jupe has created whole weekly production around UFOs, or UAPs as they are now called, which he tells his audience will change their lives, the siblings have no time for such theatrics. Though non-believers, the pair begin to ponder the existence of other life forms when, while chasing after one of their horses who escaped from its stable one night, OJ gets a glimpse of something in the sky he cannot explain.
Seeing a potential financial windfall if they can get a photo of the object, OJ and Emerald enlist the help of tech store worker Angel (Brandon Perea) to set up surveillance cameras on their ranch. What the siblings do not realize though is that the mysterious object is something far more dangerous than they could ever image.
A thrilling examination of our obsession with spectacle, Nope is endlessly fascinating. Peele packs the film with plenty of elements, take framing many of the acts around specific animals for example, that practically guarantees fans will want to revisit the film multiple times to catch all the nuggets. Jumping around in time, the film keeps one the edge of their seat in anticipation of what could potentially happen next.
Successfully utilizing a pull and release approach to the tension, Peele frequently ratchets up the eerie moments only to defuse them with a comedic beat, or simply showing that the assumed threat is anything but. One is never sure when the real danger will arrive or what form it will take.
This technique is effective because OJ and Emerald do not react to situations in a typical Hollywood manner, but rather how Black people would respond in that circumstance. When a character utters the word “nope” it is played for comedic effect as it is what the audience is thinking at that same moment. Kaluuya and Palmer are great in the lead roles, each bringing the right mix of humour, strength, and vulnerability to their characters. While Peele does not delve too deeply into the sibling’s grief, he provides just enough about their bond to make their decisions feel plausible.
What Nope may lack in character depth, it makes up for in intriguing ideas. There is a lot to unpack in how Peele structures the film and the messages it is conveying. The film is ripe with commentary on our thirst for sensationalism, there is an amusing jab at TMZ at one point, and how pop culture can numb us to the horrific realities of a situation. Peele also takes time to reflect on cinema’s role in this via the character Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a famed cinematographer known for getting the impossible shots. Driven by his ego, Holst is a man who would be willing to risk the fate of humanity if it meant getting that one perfect shot.
Whether forcing audiences to reflect on the exploitive nature of spectacle or slipping in moments of horror within the tense science fiction beats, it is a Peele film after all, Nope gives audiences plenty to chew on. Proving once again why he is one of this generation’s exciting directors to watch, Peele delivers a science fiction film that feels fresh even when making subtle nods to sci-fi films that came before it. Never quite going where you might expect, Nope is a film you will be saying yes to.