Released: 11th August
Seen: 14th August
In 2017 Jordan Peele staked his claim as a modern horror master with his directorial debut Get Out. To this day that film is one of the best films that this reviewer has had the pleasure of watching. It was terrifying and had something important to say and did it flawlessly. It’s a go-to example of a perfect film and very little has beaten it. It’s the kind of film that makes you excited to see what a director does next, and sure enough, when Peele dropped Us onto an unsuspecting public it was proof that he had something special.
While not as perfect as Get Out, Us was still an undeniably amazing film with a lead performance by Lupita Nyongo that should have given her an Oscar (but then again, the 2020 Oscars was nothing short of a shitshow when it came to nominating actors) and really set up that any horror film with Peele’s name attached was worth looking at. His power as a big name horror director is so great that there are still people who believe he directed the Candyman remake (he didn’t, he was a producer) because it’d mean he’d have released another film. Well, in 2022 we now have the third of Peele’s films and while it’s still good, Nope is probably my least favourite of the Peele films so far.
Nope takes place largely on the Haywood Ranch, a ranch where horses are trained to work in film and television. The little ranch is run by brother and sister Otis Jr AKA OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) who are trying to keep things running after the strange death of their father who was hit by a coin that fell from the sky, seemingly from an aircraft. In order to make ends meet the two have been selling their horses off to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), owner of the nearby Jupiter’s Park and the former star of fabled sitcom Gordy’s Home.
After returning back to the ranch from one of those sales the two siblings notice a strange aircraft in the sky and figure out that it’s a UFO and so, figuring that there are people on the internet who will pay good money for a high-quality image of a UFO, they set about to capture one… unfortunately their devotion to trying to capture the spectacle of an invading saucer might be the very thing that will make the UFO go from just flying overhead to actively trying to destroy the Haywood Ranch, Jupiter’s Park and anyone else who dares to look directly at the thing up in the sky.
Nope focuses on the concept of the spectacle, specifically how spectacle can distract us from the real problems that are just waiting to be found. It does this throughout in many overt and subtle ways, from the obvious ones of the spectacular sight of the ship which commands attention, attention it then abuses in order to capture and kill its prey, to more subtle ways like bringing up Siegfried and Roy, performers who were known for performances full of spectacle that would have everyone forgetting that they were dealing with wild animals that could (and almost did) bite heads off. This idea comes up again and again, a big stunning spectacle that pulls you in so that you become easy to harm and when the idea works it makes for some great sequences.
What works a little less is how these sequences are strung together, the structure of Nope feels less cohesive and more like a series of cool ideas that got thrown together. Sometimes it works, other times it feels like a great idea that didn’t belong in this film. Everything involving Ricky, for example, is absolutely fascinating from start to finish. His backstory as a child actor who witnessed a trained chimpanzee going berserk on set and brutally attacking the rest of the cast is shocking, traumatic and probably the most intense sequence in the film… and on the whole, it kind of means nothing. Ricky as a character is kind of just there so we have a chance for more spectacle but he’s not essential to the plot, which is a shame because the idea of a child actor dealing with the trauma from his past (again, spectacle of being a child actor hiding the real danger that comes along with it) would make for a fascinating film and all that’s been thrown out here.
It’s also just kind of choppy, the flow feels like it stops and starts in bursts (not helped by the inserted title cards with the names of assorted animals that feature throughout Nope ) which means you’ll just be getting into it and then everything slows down for a long time before ramping up again. It’s a weird pacing that never quite works, though when things pick up they do get to be quite impressive. Part of this could just be down to Peele having more to work with this time, not only a bigger budget than his last 2 films combined but the longest runtime of all his films and you can tell he’s reveling in the excess, which sometimes just doesn’t work as well as his more tightly structured films.
Fortunately, Nope still has several moments of greatness, from the casting of Keke Palmer who basically steals the entire film with her raw charm, the aforementioned stuff involving Gordy the chimpanzee and the entire finale that involves a field of wacky waving inflatable-arm flailing tube men which might be one of the most inventive sci-fi finale ideas you’ll see for a while. Also, it’s just visually spectacular, the cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (who has been killing it lately with his work on Ad Astra and Tenet) is top notch and makes for some haunting imagery that demands your attention. There is a substantial amount of great stuff here, it’s just kind of jumbled about in a way that ends up lessening its potential impact.
Nope is certainly a wildly fascinating film, one that is sure to create a large discussion and be the source for video essays for years to come. It has a lot going for it, it’s still quite a good film from one of the modern masters who really swung for the fences with something big and original… it just doesn’t work as well as you might want it to. The highlights are still beyond amazing and it has enough there to be a good time, it’s just sad that the grand spectacle of this film can’t distract from the cracks that keep it from being on the same level as Get Out and Us.