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.
For me, Get Out was a pretty good movie. Us was meh/confusing to me. I’ve decided Nope puts Jordan in M. Night Shyamalan territory as far as I am concerned. I think a lot of folks give filmmakers credit just because they are bringing something to the screen that isn’t a sequel, another entry in a franchise, etc. But to me, original doesn’t mean it gets a break in being any good. My wife and I thought this wasn’t entertaining at all. We agreed we liked the general concept and set-up, and maybe with another writer’s help there might even have been a movie in there somewhere. At this point Peele reminds me of M. Night, who ascended from Day 1, and has been pretty much headed in the wrong direction since.
I gotta say, I’m not sure where the high praise for Peele comes from. Don’t get me wrong, I find him to be a very interesting filmmaker. But his movies haven’t been without their issues. Yet they’re heralded by many as essential cinema. I don’t know, the love for Peele is as interesting to me as his films themselves.
100% in agreement with everything you say here.
I was hoping to see this film yesterday but I had other things to do as I’m fortunate to not have bought a ticket in order to focus on other things as I have family friends staying over for a week before they move to Philadelphia to be with their daughter who is almost finished with her pregnancy.
Oh man. That’s a lot going on. I completely understand. Between vacation and a tough bout with COVID, I almost didn’t get to see this one myself.
I think nope then.
Pretty disappointed with it. I was hoping for more.
Life got in the way of me seeing this last weekend so I’m hoping to catch it this week. I still want to see it, even with some lukewarm reviews.
I completely understand. Life almost knocked me out of seeing it too. COVID sucks!
Been planning to see this one.
It’s earned a wide range of reactions, but most are pretty positive.
I thought Get Out was decent except for the shabby ending, Us felt like a parody and the main doppelganger’s “special effects voice” was grinding and laughable at the same time. I decided to give Peele one more chance to prove himself, and the trailer was pretty good for Nope. The premise was decent just like the idea of a fabulous Dior gown is fabulous. Peele took that gorgeous design and glittering fabric and cobbled together a scarecrow outfit that is getting too many oohs and ahs. It almost feels like an insider joke, but who in their right mind would go to all of that trouble and expense for a joke? A comedian, maybe? The most disappointing thing about the movie for me was the ET! The first few minutes of it, at the movie studio, and up to when they got back to the ranch and talked with their dad (Keith) were the best parts. Throwing that side story about the berserker chimp was as aggravating as the voice in Us. I’m done with Peele. He’s had the last laugh at my time’s expense.
I just don’t get the adoration. I’m with you on his work as a whole. I think he makes decent movies, but they’re hardly the groundbreaking, inventive, masterclasses that they are portrayed to be. It’s truly baffling to me.
Keith, I honestly believe there is a subtext that we aren’t getting and it’s an ugly one.
Yep. There’s definitely subtext which I often like. But in terms of filmmaking, I just find he misses a lot of his marks.
I just caught it on DVD. Has some good things – I like that he hints around at certain things rather than just hitting you over the head the way an Independence Day does. Reminds me of M. Night etc and Signs in that way. Whatever the subtext or underlying theme was, I didn’t get it. On the surface level, more exposition would have helped.
Did you notice that AO Scott put it number on on his year end Best Of list? I guess the subtext thing resonated a little more with him.
I’ve noticed it on a few Top 10 lists. I just don’t get it. Aside from the subtext, I just didn’t find it particularly entertaining. A few good ideas here and there, but Peele’s execution is pretty spotty. I’ve pledged to give it another look, but it won’t be until after my year end list is done.