I’m still trying to figure out if Jordan Peele’s Nope works or not. The former sketch-comedy player-turned-filmmaker has become the go-to guy for Black-and-proud, laugh-out-loud horror shows, paranoid parables where people of color often have to fight for their lives (which we do most of the time anyway).
Black folk fight for their lives once again in Nope, often saying the title to themselves when they’re faced with danger. But they’re not trying to escape some Earth-bound menace. This time, the killer is way up in the sky — an unidentified flying object, sometimes even using a cloud as camouflage.
This alien whatzit mostly hovers over the ranch occupied by Hollywood horse wrangler OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). Struggling to keep their family business afloat after their father (Keith David) dies under mysterious circumstances, the pair initially tries to capture this saucer on camera. They even stock up on security-camera equipment, getting a chatty, electronics-store tech guy (Brandon Perea) to install it all. They soon learn that this spaceship doesn’t come in peace, as it sucks up horses — and, eventually, people —into its system.
For the most part, Nope is Peele basically making a Spielbergian-style blockbuster thriller where the minorities are the heroes. Mostly rocking trucker caps (unironically, of course), Kaluuya is all blue-collar cool in his role. Despite the unfortunate name, his OJ is a brave, unfazed figure, someone who sees this mysterious spacecraft as yet another threat to his family legacy. As a vaping lesbian who reluctantly becomes his partner-in-alien catching, Palmer once again does her motormouthed magic as the roguish-but-supportive sister. Peele even throws in a cranky cinematographer, played by veteran character actor Michael Wincott, who joins their crusade — a cross between Sam Peckinpah and Robert Shaw’s Captain Quint from Jaws.
Nope appears to be less racially charged than Peele’s other works, but there is some volatile subtext awkwardly squeezed in. There is a weird subplot where a former child star-turned-amusement-park owner (Steven Yeun), whom O.J. does business with, is still haunted by the memory of a bloodthirsty monkey literally going apeshit on the predominantly white cast of a sitcom they both starred in. (This might be Peele bitterly recalling his days as a cast member on Mad TV, trying not to lose it as he regularly made a fool out of himself on a regular, televised basis.)
Sequences like this make Nope seem like an overambitious, oddly-paced ride. While it is refreshing to see a filmmaker like Peele swing for the fences narrative-wise (it makes you wish studios would let more filmmakers take chances like that), some of it just doesn’t land. Maybe it’s because I expect Peele to be so focused with his themes, but I’m at a loss trying to figure out what dude is ultimately trying to say with this.
He does appear to use this shot-with-IMAX-cameras spectacle — with it’s impressively eerie, nocturnal sequences and a rollicking climax that somehow turns the movie into a neo-Western — to make an argument for clever, old-school filmmaking, especially when Wincott’s crusty filmmaker pulls out non-electrical camera equipment to film the elusive spaceship. (Between this and Top Gun: Maverick, this summer has mostly been about blockbusters proving they don’t have to be CGI-ed all to hell in order to entertain audiences.)
While people might come outta Nope thinking this is Jordan Peele’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the fine line it walks between bold and bloated really makes it Jordan Peele’s Signs.
“Nope” is out Friday in theaters.