Jordan Peele’s last two movies, Get Out and Us, have flipped sci-fi and horror genre conventions and that continues with his third film, Nope. This plays around with sci-fi blockbuster / alien invasion genre with horror touches. There’s also a theme about the futility of trying to tame nature. Don’t look a wild animal in the eye, be it horse, chimpanzee or UFO because there’s a good chance you’ll get pasted. Humanity’s lack of humility towards nature could get itself killed, and the alien creature sucking up people can also be seen as climate change rampaging across the planet. But all that aside, this is great widescreen spectacle. Although unlike the excellently paced Us, Nope takes its sweet time to get to the best stuff.
Otis Haywood Jr. aka OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) is a professional animal wrangler who lends out horses to Hollywood productions and things are not going very well for his business when one of his horses freaks out. Getting help from his sister, Em (Keke Palmer), OJ goes to a local carnival owner, Jupe (Steve Yuen), for a business deal. But Jupe seems more interested in talking about his gory days as a child actor that ended horribly when a chimpanzee on set went crazy. Meanwhile, OJ has noticed a mysterious object in the sky and is convinced if he and Em capture it on film their financial woes will be done. With the help of an electronics store clerk, Angel (Brandon Perea) and a Hollywood cinematographer, Holst (Michael Wincott), the brother and sister try to record the mysterious object but their electronic equipment crashes whenever it gets near. Even worse, the giant object is sucking up people and things across town and spitting out the non-organic matter, creating a seemingly unstoppable killer UFO.
A huge theme is one can’t control nature as even with preparation the animal can still flip out. It happens a few times in the movie, early on there’s a heartbreakingly awkward scene with OJ on set trying to get the horse to work in a shoot. He starts by saying his father’s old speech about the history of motion pictures and how the first image captured on film was a man riding a horse by one of their ancestors. But he says it so stilted and awkwardly it shows that he isn’t really built for big presentations, something his sister is great at and she knows the speech by heart. But flashing a light monitor in the horse’s eyes causes it to kick erratically and they lose the job. On their way out of the job, there’s a green horse-shaped VFX prop rolled in to replace them which is both amusing and a bummer.
The backstory about Jupe and his childhood TV show tragedy also shows humanity’s lack of hubris with animals. He was a child actor on a TV show involving a chimpanzee as a family member and one day the chimp mauled the cast, deforming an actress and there’s a very disturbing scene of the chimp going after the helpless actors. By adulthood, Jupe has turned his tragic story into a moneymaking venture, but his next big scheme is trying to attract the UFO and things go predictably wrong. Even the mauled actress is there, her face partially obscured by a shawl. Probably the most disturbing moment is inside the UFO as people are being sucked up and their screams are heard from outside. The slowness of each one being consumed is very creepy which flips the tone from sci-fi spectacle to horror.
There are good character moments but the first hour is a bit of a drag. There’s even like three fake scares in a row which is less funny than frustrating. The opening scene is OJ and his dad (Keith David) on the farm when his dad dies from a chunk of falling debris. Later, the UFO is spitting out non-organic residue from the people it consumes that land like bullets. The baddie killed the protagonists’ father is a standard action movie trope but it works. Kaluuya’s OJ goes from meek to heroic over the course of the movie, which isn’t stunningly original but he sells it, especially in the final moments. Palmer as Em is good for a few side quips and emotionally stirring in the finale. Yuen’s huckster carnival host hints he’s still harboring the pain from his traumatic childhood event. As the electronics store clerk turned UFO hunter, Perea has entertaining rants about everything from his recent break up to UFO cover ups. Providing gravelly voiced gravitas is Wincott as his cinematographer is obsessed with trying to capture the UFO on camera which gets messy. The finale is awesome as the crew sets up an intricate plan to try to capture the UFO on film (hand cranked, not electronic), and things go sideways with an unexpected arrival and the UFO sucking up everything. There is an expansion of the UFO’s appearance throughout the film; it starts as a standard flying saucer and often changes as its final version is both wondrous and extremely alien.
Nope continues Peele’s streak of interesting genre movies with some social messages while also subverting and delivering on sci-fi/horror expectations. The alien invasion genre has been done before but never quite with this much style.
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun