Jordan Peele is one of the most original filmmakers working today. His latest feature, Nope, with a title referenced within the film as shorthand for “No effing way,” is that rare Hollywood beast perilously close to extinction – a summer spectacular that isn’t a sequel or part of a franchise. Peele has a talent for devising new and clever ways to recycle well-worn horror movie tropes and imbue them with social commentary. His 2017 directorial debut, Get Out, gave us mad scientists committing the ultimate in cultural appropriation. His 2019 sophomore feature, Us, took the evil twin cliché to chilling extremes with an attack on American privilege by legions of doppelgängers. Nope, ostensibly a UFO thriller, marks his third and most audacious endeavor yet. Even before the opening credits roll there’s an ominous Old Testament quote, a chimpanzee running amok on the set of a late ‘90s TV sitcom, and an inexplicable downpour of small metallic objects from the sky. Peele weaves these seemingly disparate elements into a sly critique of exploiting animals for spectacle, and, in the process, he creates a spectacle of his very own.
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star as siblings, O.J. and Emerald, who have inherited a ranch that supplies trained horses for movies and television. However, one of their newest customers, Jupe, played by Steven Yeun, is running a nearby frontier amusement park named Jupiter’s Claim, and for some odd reason, Jupe suddenly needs a steady supply of horses. After O.J. spots a huge UFO, he and his sister set out to become the first to get photographic evidence of whatever is hiding among the clouds. Nope, which deftly morphs from mystery to sci-fi to monster movie, boasts a completely unique creature design (which I won’t spoil here). The impressive sound design deserves special mention; a sound effect that recurs throughout brings to mind a bunch of people screaming in excitement while enjoying a roller coaster ride. But here, it’s used to nightmarish effect. Kind of brilliantly, it also self-reflexively evokes the amusement park thrill ride that Peele’s film will no doubt be compared to.
As with his previous films, Peele wears his inspirations on his sleeve. This time around he mines heavily from two Spielberg classics, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. Additionally, he plies his knowledge of film history by including in the opening credits what’s considered the first motion picture – a sequence of rapidly shot photos of a black jockey atop a galloping horse. Emerald and O.J. reference the images when speaking to clients, claiming the rider was their great, great grandfather. By deliberately incorporating the historic images into Nope’s narrative, Peele not only makes a statement about forgotten contributions of African Americans, but when he trained his camera on Daniel Kaluuya riding horseback, he essentially bracketed the entire history of cinema with near identical images!
Jordan Peele respects the intelligence of his audience and isn’t afraid to challenge them with nuanced stories that might not reveal how smartly crafted they are after just one viewing. His willingness to take chances has paid off; Nope is one of the most interesting and ambitious movies of the year.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski