One never really knows what they are getting into when watching a Jordan Peele movie for the first time. The director taps into something that has us question modern-day social dynamics while weaving in high-quality entertainment, some great scares, and stellar surprises. While “Nope” still plays on those horror tropes we all know and love, it also acts as a love letter to the early days of Steven Spielberg’s films. But it’s not without flaws, especially when it starts strong but is capped off with a rather clunky third act and is troubled by an underdeveloped subplot.
“Nope” opens with a rather ominous Nahum 3:6 bible verse that tells audiences, “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, And make you a spectacle.” That casting of fifth, making one vile, and turning them into a spectacle would soon be revealed as the residents of a hot and dry California gulch bear witness to an out-of-this-world phenomenon that affects humans and animals alike.
Believing that these events are of the unnatural kind, ranch-owning siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) use their home and ranch as a base of operations to capture video evidence of an unidentified flying object.
The only thing that stands in their way is understanding the nature and pattern of movements of this UFO. There’s also Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former sitcom star and the owner of a neighboring family-friendly cowboy-themed amusement park, who is driving the Haywood ranch out of business. Meanwhile, OJ sells off his horses to Ricky in hopes of keeping his home and ranch but also continues to work as a horse trainer for TV commercials in hopes of getting the money to repurchase them. But Ricky has different plans for these horses, one that doesn’t involve the park itself but something far more nefarious.
While OJ and Emerald eventually figure out the UFO’s behavior, they discover it’s just as unpredictable as any untrained animal. And like any beast, it will instinctively attack if provoked.
Audiences and fans who are overly familiar with Peele’s filmography know he is a master at delivering one-of-a-kind scares inspired by the classics. In this case, “Nope” is influenced by Spielberg’s earlier work. While it pulls from the classic sci-fi spectacle of aliens and UFOs in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and the well-paced tension-driven thriller “Jaws,” the OJ and Em’s story helps ground the film.
And “Nope’s” exploration of the human and animation relationship is very apparent in the way Peele makes these connections through the various plots. First of which is in the film’s opening, where audiences bear witness to a chimp viciously attacking the cast of a family sitcom. The second is how OJ and his father (Keith David) train horses at their family ranch. And the third comes with how the characters have a polarizing dynamic with the UFO. But establishing some connections is confusing, especially when the subplot feels completely disconnected from Oj and Em’s story.
Still, clues peppered throughout the film tell us this is no ordinary film about UFOs. And it’s not as though we haven’t seen a homage to Spielberg using similar visual languages and narratives. The only difference here is that Peele makes it his own by bringing his take on horror and his sense of humor into “Nope.”
So even though “Nope” feels a lot like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” its pacing and tension building comes off as something a lot more like “Jaws.” We not only see that in how the UFO is revealed and consumes life but how OJ and Em interact and react to it. They eventually add tech salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to their documentary team to help them capture the evidence they need to prove that the ufo is real. In some ways, it likens Quint, Brody, and Hooper trying to catch the great white shark in “Jaws.” Because, as we all know, seeing is believing.
And as much as the “Nope” takes a cue from the golden age of Spielberg, it loses its momentum when it deviates from the plot we should all be concerned about as it focuses on Ricky’s trauma. Flashbacks reveal the root cause of it all, which is a flimsy attempt to establish the human and animal relationship from a different perspective. At times, it feels like Ricky doesn’t have much of a relationship with OJ and Em, other than buying their horses. He uses his celebrity status as a means to attract new guests. And upon finding out about the UFO, he believes he has found a way to make his amusement park the go-to destination. But there’s no rivalry between them as they race to be the first to prove that the UFO is real. Ricky is just there, and a means to add to the film’s high body count.
But the underdeveloped subplot doesn’t take away from OJ and Em’s story. Nor does it weaken the first two terror-filled acts. The pace at which the UFO is revealed and how it behaves when combined with OJ and Em’s reactions is perfect. Like waiting for Bruce in Jaws. You know it’s out there, but you don’t know when it will appear. And even when it does, you start to question whether or not it’s real. Of course, that can only last so long. So the film pivots from “is it real” to “can we get this thing on film?”
Peele delicately balances that suspense and sense of humor with a deft hand. And “Nope’s” atmosphere, sound – or in this case, the lack of it – and Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography pulls you into an immersive cinematic experience that is out of this world.
Additionally, Hoytema’s angled camera choices of a big blue spacious sky leave audiences wondering where to look, which is part of “Nope’s” charms. Then when we get a close-up look at the UFO, we see the massive circumference of the ship and how it makes everything else around it look tiny.
Not enough can be said about what Kaluuya and Palmer bring to “Nope.” It’s rare to see such a celebration of a Black siblinghood on screen in a major studio film. The two go from not connecting due to some past traumas and hostility to acknowledging what they have always seen each other. It’s a beautiful dynamic that helps give “Nope” more emotional nuance. Individually they also bring laughs. A frightened OJ taking a peek at the UFO from his truck and quickly slamming the door and saying “nope” is how anyone would react. But it’s in how that film is paced and his delivery that makes us agree. And the same can be said for Palmer’s Em, who knows the art of the charm and hustle.
Though “Nope’s” strengths lie in Peele’s ambitious storytelling and attention to detail in the visual language, its clunky third act that doesn’t know when to end could frustrate a few. And during the final act, it still squeezes in a reintroduction of old characters and adding of new antagonists that make the film longer than it should be. And it’s not like they are of any real narrative value other than to add to the body count.
One thing is for sure, “Nope” will be Peele’s most polarizing film to date. while there are some flaws to it, the visual language and technical aesthetics are beautiful. And Kaluuya and Palmer deliver top-notch performances that you could watch repeatedly.