Review: NOPE, Contemplative Sci-FI Extravaganza
Nope, director Jordan Peele's latest science-fiction/horror offering, finds the filmmaker attempting to balance his trademark penchant for social commentary with a much grander visual spectacle than he's ever attempted. While he's pretty solidly successful in the latter, the former is a bit murkier, with meaning often hidden a layer or two deeper than many will be interested in looking.
OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), along with his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), are the last scions of a dynasty of Hollywood horse trainers, the Haywoods, who can trace their lineage back to the very first assemblage of images ever to be put in motion. That two-second loop, of a horse running with a black jockey (the siblings’ great-great-great-great grandfather), has defined their identities for their entire lives.
When patriarch Otis dies after a freak shower of the detritus of humanity – coins, keys, etc… - the legacy is left to them; the problem is that at this point it has become more of a financial burden than a boon. When the siblings spot something shifty in the sky, they become determined to find it, photograph it, and ride their notoriety to fame and fortune, but it’s not going to be easy.
Plugged into the story is the tale of Ricky “Jupe” Park (Stephen Yeun), a former child star turned Wild West theme park huckster with more money than sense. Jupe’s history in the TV business was marred by an unfortunate incident on a live set one day that he wears like a badge of courage. Jupe and the Haywoods have a mixed history, but with the park’s need for horses and the ranch’s need for cash, they make do.
At a certain point, what was initially Emerald’s idea to capitalize on their unique situation becomes a very, very real threat to their existence. The second half of the film takes all of the preparation and rolls it up into a rollicking extended sci-fi attack sequence that is truly spectacular. It may not be enough to bring Nope to the level of either of Peele’s previous films in terms of their ability to provoke fruitful discussions, but it certainly laps both when it comes to pure aural and visual bliss.
Kaluuya is clearly Peele’s biggest muse, and his performance as the dutiful son attempting to maintain his family’s legacy in the midst of a financial crisis seems at first to be almost lazy in its lack of outward emotion. However, it becomes clear that OJ is roiling on the inside. In his silence, there is weight, meaning, and fear; he’s analyzing every detail, every moment. He says more with a single word or glance than most could with a monologue.
Palmer is his exact opposite, she’s the showman, the motor-mouthed hustler who is constantly trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. They both admire and believe in the legacy of their family, but for OJ it has become a burden, while Emerald is trying to find a way to make it pop.
In addition to Yeun’s boisterous turn as Jupe, Poole also cast a very game Michael Wincott as an aloof cinematographer looking for a thrill and Brandon Perea as an excitable Fry’s tech with a soft spot for conspiracy theories and a handiness with security cameras. The relatively small cast work well with and against one another; interactions feel real, and since they are all essentially acting against Kaluuya and Palmer, the secondary interactions help the audience understand who they are, especially in the case of Kaluuya, whose stoney performance is nigh impenetrable, but a thing of beauty.
Where Nope is head and shoulders above its predecessors is in the technical aspects, it is here that Peele and his dream team create a film with immense scope and power. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (Dunkirk, Ad Astra, Interstellar) captures not only the beauty of the Haywoods’ ranch, but also the danger of it; he crafts action sequences as good as or better than those he’s created with Christopher Nolan. The IMAX photography is never less than stunning, with every frame brimming with details to draw the eye, sometimes on purpose, but sometimes just by virtue of their beauty.
Similarly, the score by Michael Abels is evocative of the great science fiction adventures of the ‘80s while still being able to convey dread when dread is needed. He is more than ably supported by sound designer Johnnie Burn, who fills the stage with shrieks, howls, whistles, and heavy silence at all the right moments.
Nope is a joy to behold, that’s for sure, and even though this reviewer winced a bit at the two-hour and then-some run time, there wasn’t a moment that I was not entranced and engrossed by what was happening on screen. The challenge at the end of this roller coaster was attempting to put it all together in my head. A Jordan Peele film comes with its own baggage, an expectation that what we see and hear is only half of the story, and that’s where this film’s themes become muddy.
It's a conundrum of his own making, when your debut is so incredibly forthright with its intentions and yet still manages to engage the viewer on additional levels upon later analysis, you set up expectations. Get Out, with its Academy Award winning screenplay, was able to engage with its audience in ways that were clear, yet left plenty of room for discussion. There was no question as to that that film was “about.”
With Us, Peele put a little more faith in the viewer, keeping many of his cards very close to the chest, revealing deeper meaning through action and a bit through last minute exposition, but relative to his debut, it was a thinker, and performed like one, with critics and audiences more divided on whether it was a masterpiece or masturbation. For the record, I lean toward the former, but hesitate to label it.
Nope perhaps takes Peele even further from that initial blast of fury into a kind of contemplative sci-fi extravaganza, filled equally with breathtaking visuals and pensive character moments. Its motives are less clear, by a fairly wide margin; there is no explanation, there are hints, feelings, looks, grunts, and bloviations that define the characters, but less so the theme(s). Is that okay?
Of course it is, it is perfectly okay and even exciting to be entertained without the need for dissection. And while Nope certainly approaches the nature of spectacle, the danger of celebrity, the power of nature, and the danger of believing the hubris of man having dominion over nature, it never comes right out and says any of that.
What Peele and his team have created here is a film that will reward repeat viewings, spark conversation, and brings smiles to fans of seeing big, loud, crazy shit on screen. As a viewer to whom all of that sounds appealing, I have to say that’s a win; Nope may be Peele’s least effective film, but that’s nothing to sneeze at. I can’t wait to see it again.
- Jordan Peele
- Jordan Peele
- Daniel Kaluuya
- Keke Palmer
- Brandon Perea