Few filmmakers have been greeted with as much fanfare as Jordan Peele. His directorial debut, 2017’s “Get Out”, has been universally lauded despite its noticeable first-feature blemishes. He followed it up with 2019’s “Us”, a better film with an eerie premise that’s anchored by an outstanding Lupita Nyong’o performance (How the Oscars failed to nominate her is beyond me).
Peele has called his new film “Nope” his most ambitious and it sees him working with his biggest budget yet. Peele both writes and directs this big screen spectacle that just so happens to be about our seemingly inherent obsession for spectacle. “Nope” sees Peele reteaming with his “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya. But the more intriguing cast members are Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, newcomer Brandon Perea, and the always great Keith David.
But despite its tantalizing premise, “Nope” is a case of a film teasing more than it delivers. It’s a movie that spends a lot of time building towards something big, but too much of that time is spent spinning its wheels (there’s a tighter and more tension-filled version to be had if you shave off around 20 minutes). And while you can’t help but recognize (and enjoy) the influences of Hitchcock, Carpenter, and Spielberg, Peele’s efforts to put his own stamp on the movie comes at the expense of character development, narrative cohesion, and story momentum.
Otis Haywood Sr. (David) owns Haywood Hollywood Horses, a Southern California ranch that trains and handles horses to be used in movie and television productions. When Otis is mysteriously killed by a shower of debris falling from the sky, his son OJ (Kaluuya) decides to keep the ranch going while his super-chatty sister Emerald (Palmer) tries to strike it big in Hollywood.
Six months pass and after losing a big TV commercial contract, OJ is forced to sell some of his father’s stock to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun), a former child actor who now runs a small Old West theme park just down from the Haywoods’ ranch. Jupe has a wild history of his own. He was the young star of a 90’s sitcom about a chimpanzee named Gordy. During a shoot, Gordy went on a violent rampage, brutally attacking members of the cast and studio audience (we see it unfold in two flashbacks which are easily the film’s most unsettling yet disappointingly inconsequential scenes). Jupe witnessed the entire ordeal but survived. Now he uses his notoriety from that experience to entice tourists to his park.
Back at the ranch, OJ and Emerald begin noticing a series of strange unexplainable occurrences – horses tearing off in mad panics, sudden losses of power to the house, vehicles, even cell phones, a mysterious cloud in the distance that hasn’t moved an inch in days. But then OJ sees it – a flying saucer slipping in and out of the clouds. Rather than contacting the authorities, he and Emerald decide to capture it on camera. After all, if they can snap that “Oprah shot” then certainly fame and fortune will follow.
So OJ and Emerald start working on a plan to capture their money-making shot, inadvertently recruiting the help of an electronics store techie named Angel (Perea). At first it all seems pretty light and playful. But the more they learn about their otherworldly invader, the darker and more sinister things get.
Along the way we get plenty of eye-catching imagery from the great DP Hoyt van Hoytema (the use of 65mm and IMAX cameras at times makes the movie pop off the screen). And there are several instances where the score from composer Michael Abels combined with the sound design ratchets up the tension to near nerve-racking levels (this is seen clearest in the film’s best sequence as two characters are trapped in the ranch house as the terrifying visitor hovers overhead).
But rather than taking form, the story extends itself in too many directions, introducing subplots but never bringing them together in a satisfying way. There’s plenty for us to sort through and perhaps Peele wants us to wrangle with the many threads. But in doing so, things bog down and I found myself tired of waiting for the climax. In one sense you can’t help but admire Peele’s restraint. Seemingly taking to heart the lesson of “Jaws”, Peele keeps his secret threat hidden, only giving us brief glimpses and choruses of disturbing sounds (often in the frightening form of human screams) until he’s ready to pull the curtain back. Unfortunately by then, I was already checking my watch.
As for the performances, Kaluuya remains a puzzle to me. Many often praise his steely intensity. But there’s often a blank emotionlessness in his performances that verges on detachment. In “Nope”, there are times when Kaluuya is so jarringly expressionless that it clashes with the moment. And there are several scenes where the movie desperately needs him to sell the tension but he just can’t do it. Palmer is exactly the opposite – a perpetual burst of energy that you learn to tolerate. As for Perea, his character flutters around aimlessly for a while. But once Peele finds his place, Perea becomes a welcomed presence.
When soaking in the entirety of “Nope”, it’s easy to think of things worth commending. As expected, it’s a thematically rich movie. Again, take its critique of spectacle, not just our hunger for it, but the lengths (no matter how morally icky) that Hollywood will go to feed our cravings. And Peele doesn’t let his audience off the hook. After all, we are the ones watching – the rabid consumers who will turn a blind eye to all kinds of injustices and exploitations just to get our fill.
At the same time, it’s hard to shake the movie’s shortcomings. Whether it’s overambition or overindulgence (or maybe a combination of both), “Nope” too often strays off its path. As a result, the main story stretches itself out longer than necessary while seeming to go nowhere. And Peele’s rush to bring everything together in the end leaves too many question marks. Some might be quick to overlook its blemishes. But for a filmmaker with the heralded status of Jordan Peele (warranted or not), it’s not unreasonable to expect more than what “Nope” ultimately delivers. “Nope” is no showing in theaters.