Jordan Peele’s third film, Nope, is another intense thriller, full of context, theme, and flourish. Comparisons to Steven Spielberg or John Carpenter are accurate; Peele uses similar tricks and skills to entertain, frighten, and captivate audiences. He also has a need to tell stories full of metaphor and social awareness, but he also doesn’t want any of that to spoil the fun.
Like Rod Serling, Stephen King, or Harlan Ellison, for Peele, the story is the driving force – the rest of it comes naturally while spinning a wonderful yarn. Peele knows that the distance between a laugh and a scream is infinitesimal, and like Spielberg and Carpenter, Peele knows how to straddle that line. Nope is funny, scary, and full of ideas, both visually and thematically.
The trailers are a bit of a misdirect; we’ve seen all kinds of alien invasion movies before, but Peele is after a bigger game. He knows how to play with that visual vocabulary as well as with the audience’s expectations. Like Get Out and Us before it, Peele is commenting on racial, social, and economic issues, all while playing with genre tropes, except that this time, Peele is setting his sights on Hollywood and our innate need for spectacle.
Every one of these characters lives on the periphery of fame and fortune, and almost every one of them is trying to find their way in, no matter the cost to themselves. It’s a heavy thematic weight to lift, but Jordan Peele lifts it effortlessly because his craft and his talent are so strong. There are images and set pieces in Nope that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before, and Peele orchestrates the tension like a master conductor. Nope is more ambitious in scope than Get Out or Us, but Peele gets more toys to play with this time.
One of those toys is the IMAX camera, and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tenet, Dunkirk) uses every square inch of screen space to help tell this story. 2022 feels like a banner year for IMAX – between this and Top Gun: Maverick, audiences are being treated to the majesty of the cinematic experience again, and I’m all for it.
Much of Nope takes place at night, but Peele and Hoytema make the darkness work for them. Often, the audience isn’t sure what it is seeing, and both Peele and Hoytema use that tension to give us some terrifying moments. But they also know when it’s time to turn on the lights and show us glorious imagery and visuals.
After the sudden and tragic loss of their father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) continue to run the family horse farm, selling or renting their horses to Hollywood studios. Nearby, former child star Ricky Park (Steven Yeun) owns and runs a Wild West show and uses the Haywood horses in his act. But there are strange things happening on the ranch. Horses are disappearing, and when OJ sees… something… in the sky, the Haywoods’ first inclination is to get it on camera.
With the help of a Fry’s tech supporter (Brandon Perea), OJ and Em set up surveillance video units all over the ranch, but whatever is in the sky, hiding behind the clouds seems to suck all the electricity before it attacks. Soon, everyone, including world-renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), is fighting for their lives, as well as fighting to get the shot that will make them all rich and famous.
Nope is an ode to all those non-famous crews who keep the Hollywood machine going — tech support, the animal wranglers, the stunt people, the assistants to the assistants — those who sometimes give life and limb so that the show goes on. Peele also seems to be making commentary on our need for the next new spectacle and how we are all addicted to the chase of fame and fortune, but that’s not always thematically consistent.
The story of Ricky Park, Steven Yeun’s character, is especially fascinating, considering what we learn of his past. Peele seems to be saying that our pursuit of fame goes explicitly against our own best interests, but it’s not always clear in the story he’s telling. Peele also seems to be pointing his finger directly at Hollywood and how it exploits everything and everyone it touches, but Peele also knows when to put those themes in the background and let the story and the actors have fun with the well-established tropes that this genre provides.
This genre, by the way, isn’t what is advertised. It’s best not to get into spoilers about what Nope is about, but people expecting Jordan Peele’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be in for a surprise. Even the characters are specific and recognizable archetypes. Michael Wincott knows the assignment, and his Antlers get some very fun and recognizable moments.
I really loved Daniel Kaluuya’s performance here – OJ (named by his father) is mourning his father’s loss and suffers from social anxiety as a result. While he loves his horses, OJ is also reticent about working in Hollywood, which chews up so many and spits everyone out. He is a man of few words, but when he does speak, it’s worth paying attention to. Kaluuya gets some great hero moments, especially in the film’s final half-hour.
Keke Palmer’s Emerald is trying her best to pick up the pieces and to bring OJ out of his shell, and Palmer gives us much of Nope‘s humor and spirit. Nope is often hilarious – Peele knows that in movies like this, laughter very often gives way to screams, and he plays each moment for what it’s worth. These characters aren’t dumb; they make logical choices, and when things go badly for them, it’s not because they did something stupid.
The final act of Nope is flat-out great, and Peele brings every single one of his considerable skills as a writer and director to bear. This genre is as old as storytelling itself, but Peele breathes new life into it, giving us moments to cheer and moments to duck behind our seats. It’s not very often that cinema gets a new movie monster, especially one as original and as well thought out as this one.
There are scenes in Nope that still play in my mind several days later; I can genuinely say there are images in Nope that I’ve never seen before. I hope Jordan Peele gets all the sand for his sandbox that he needs because he’s telling stories from his unique perspective, and in a cinematic world of so much the same, it’s refreshing to have such a distinct and strong voice as he’s giving us such great entertainment.
People keep comparing Peele to Spielberg, or Hitchcock, or John Carpenter, but all I want is more Jordan Peele. He’s forging his own path in cinema, and I am eager to follow him down to wherever that path takes him. Nope is original, unique, and wildly entertaining.
NOPE REVIEW SCORE: 9 OUT OF 10
Universal Pictures will release Nope on Thursday, July 21. The film is rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images.
Alan Cerny has been writing about film for more than 20 years for such sites as Ain’t It Cool News, CHUD, Birth Movies Death, and ComingSoon. He has been a member of the Houston Film Critics Society since 2011. STAR WARS biased. Steven Spielberg once called Alan a “very good writer,” and Alan has the signed letter to prove it, so it must be true.