Director: Jordan Peele
Screenplay: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea
Review: David Stephens
As good as Jordan Peele's previous two films have been and for all of their social relevance, they're basically updates on well-worn horror traits. Get Out is a twist on Body Snatchers, and Us is a variation on the old evil twin chestnut and underground society urban legends. One genre site wittily suggested that Us is, in fact, a stealth remake of CHUD! Well, now here's the similarly ambiguously title Nope. On the back of trailers which focused on WTF? snatched images from the film, it appears to be a love letter to 1950s sci-fi "flying saucer" films. And to some extent, it is. But as with all of Peele's work, there's a whole lot more to it than just that. It stars Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), Keke Palmer (Scream Queens & Scream TV shows), and Steve Yeun (The Walking Dead). It's now in UK cinemas, some three weeks after the USA release (we thought we were done with this staggered release BS!), so we took a look at whether it deserves a "yay!" or "neigh!".
Otis "OJ" Haywood (Kaluuya) is the emotionally distant but hard-working ranch dude that runs "Haywood's Hollywood Horses" with his father in a remote gorge. The family has an ancestral link with black cinema history which they are proud of, and they continue to wrangle and supply pedigree horses for films and commercials. However, after witnessing a bizarre tragedy at the film's start, OJ is on a downer, and his self-promoting sister (Palmer as Emerald "Em" Haywood) comes to stay at the ranch to help. Before long, they see inexplicable events on the ranch and in the skies, and things begin to get… "nopey".
As you may have guessed, Peele's film is much more than just UFO hunting or glimpsing aliens. But worry ye not, here there be no spoilers! At its heart is about spectacle, exploitation, and the short-term memory loss that mass media often has about tragic events that don't fit into its way of thinking. That last theme is represented by genuinely disturbing flashbacks to a fictional 90s sitcom that starred one of the lead characters as a child actor. This also touches on the central themes of exploitative behaviour for entertainment and humankind having the audacity to think it can lord it over all other species and treat them how they want. Doesn't always work like that, guys. This is all intriguing stuff woven into the UFO hunting main plot, but to be honest, it doesn't always hold together well, as the weight of themes and style bursts the seams of substance.
To begin with, the mysterious "watch the skies" motif is nicely done and pretty creepy. Imagine the initial scenes of Close Encounters played for horror. Flashes of something flit through clouds, screams are heard in the air, and a night-time encounter in a "deserted" barn results in the first well-deserved "Uh, Nope!" from Kaluuya. In later sequences, there is a genuinely nightmarish moment involving an audience and some other incidental details that become more horrifying the longer you think about it. And yet, Peele underplays these elements a great deal. This might sound counter-productive and ghoulish, but there are later examples where certain aspects could have provided more moments of terror, which could have delivered sleepless nights for viewers if they were played out more explicitly. However, this angle is circumvented to provide more surreal imagery or offbeat moments.
That's not to say that Nope doesn't contain some clever and effective stuff. After all, how could you dislike a movie with the gravel-voiced Michael Wincott speaking the lyrics of "Purple People Eater" as if he were reading Shakespeare? It is probably that apart from one horrible moment, one faux scare, and one excellent jump scare, it lacks the fear factor of Peele's previous films and often goes for "weird" just for the sake of it. You can't help thinking that moments like the appearance of the silver helmeted TMZ reporter are just filmed like that to provide bizarre and misleading moments for trailers. After all, who saw the teaser footage and thought there was a zombie somewhere in the story? Nope. That scene is qualified by a plot point and is probably nothing like you thought it would be.
That probably summarises a lot of Nope in actuality. Much of it is nothing like you think it would be. That's not an issue. The problem is that some of it is not what you wish it would be. Is it wrong that we thought the sequences with the "experience" audience, the sitcom, and the barn visitation were brilliantly mounted and wanted more of that rather than the faux Western stand-offs and unlikely plot elements? The "stalking" sequences, where the camera jitters from one perspective to another like a worried accomplice, are also pretty cool. Instead, we found ourselves wondering why Peele picked The Scorpion King as a Hollywood reference, why nobody in local newsrooms was alerted to the "Star Lasso Experience" if it has been going on for months (especially with missing hikers), and why a printed photograph would still be acceptable proof of something?
Don't get us wrong. There are many neat ideas and moments here, but for us, it's just not on par with the factors and thrills of Get Out and Us. Many people will dig the slant on several Fortean elements here and Peele's unique treatment of them; it's just that the narrative doesn't hold together as well as you would expect. It feels like there are missed opportunities with the more genre-based elements, and the themes have become much more important than the story. Not a failure by any means, but this is the lesser entry in Peele's filmography at the moment.