At the start of Nope, horse trainer Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) appears on a commercial set to give a well-rehearsed spiel and safety briefing about being on-set with a live animal. Emerald has been around horses and film production all her life, she explains, being the descendant of jockey Gilbert Domm, who appeared in an 1878 prototype zoopraxiscope film consisting of 24 still photos of Domm galloping on horseback. Her brother Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) stands awkwardly off to the side, having just failed to command the attention of the cast and crew delivering the same speech, chiming in only once to correct the number of times Emerald should say “great” before “grandfather”, because Emerald, the showier of the pair, clearly learned this speech verbatim from their late father Otis Sr. (Keith David). This is not the opening scene of the film – that one features the unlikely appearance of a blood-soaked chimpanzee – but it surely sets the tone for what will follow, because OJ spends most of the film acting comfortable around horses but uncomfortable in the life he has inherited (although his official orange crew hoodie from The Scorpion King still looks cozy after two decades). Emerald, meanwhile, bookends her briefing with a plug for all of her other entertainment projects, and tells OJ in no uncertain terms that she’s only sticking around for the side hustle of her family’s show-horse business – her prior involvement having been spurned by their late father – out of loyalty to her brother. And to the animals, of course.
Nope sets the stage with a multilayered family drama that calls to mind M. Night Shyamalan‘s 2002 alien invasion film Signs before the first UFO skitters across the sky, but it is only part of the backdrop of this film. And yet, as I attempt to compare Nope to other alien flicks, I find that this comparison really only applies to the first two acts, with alien imagery flitting back and forth just out of view in darkness. The UFO film canon has set my expectations somewhere between “they blow up the White House and then the US military blows them up” and “they show up for a quick reveal/abduction, then roll credits”. Nope doesn’t fit neatly into either extreme, and doesn’t remain in the darkness for long. It also features three other characters almost exclusively in daylight – Fry’s geek squad technician Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), intense cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), and theme park cowboy Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun). Park runs the neighboring Jupiter’s Claim western town theme park, just a short drive from the Haywoods’ ranch, and acts as neighbor, business rival, and occasional prankster. In addition to being a reliable cowboy with a harrowing past (played marvelously as a child by Jacob Kim), he is perhaps the most familiar with the pitfalls of using live animals on a film set. Angel and Antlers are multigenerational curious cats, drawn in by the allure of the Haywoods’ UFO mystery and showing up to assist for no better reason than…well, why wouldn’t you try to capture high-quality evidence of alien visitors coming to Earth? In this way, the film calls to mind another thriller with smart and capable protagonists: Mike Flanagan‘s Oculus, which also features a pair of adult siblings whose words say “nope” to the monsters at their door, but whose actions, in detail and with a great deal of planning, say yup. They may not want to be out and unprotected when the visitors show up, but they damn sure want a camera pointing at them.
With that planning comes the tantalizing prospect of seeing the aliens in daylight (at magic hour, if Holst gets his way), and it is in this arena that Nope is immensely satisfying, even if it takes a while to get there. As a practical matter, this means that director Jordan Peele and veteran sci-fi/horror cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Interstellar) get to spend nearly a full hour being clever but not quite showing their hand, with the mystery and aliens hidden just out of view, unseen as often because characters are willfully ignoring them as because they happened to be looking in the wrong direction. The film makes clever use of shadow and cloud (and several transforming iterations of the two), as well as sufficient intrigue with its animal performers to ensure that you’re never quite sure where to direct your gaze, or whether you’re looking at something to fear. And then, when the time comes, there they are. I will not describe the precise nature of the aliens here, except to say that the film merely begins with stereotypes and expectations and expands into ever-more-interesting territory from there. Much like the difference between angels as depicted in medieval art vs. as described in religious texts, the imagery starts conventional and veers sharply into the bizarre, to the point where the ensuing myths that are littered across our society start to make a bit more visual sense even as the aliens look more and more…well, alien. If these are the real aliens, it’s no wonder all our mythmakers could describe were gray men and flying saucers. Their cameras sucked, but they were also wise enough not to look directly at them.
That is ultimately the tension that is at play in this film, and in this way it feels thoroughly modern. We don’t dare look at the horrors surrounding us, willfully ignored and obfuscated by those with the power to affect them, but we are surely eager to capture and tweet them, even if we’re not quite sure what purpose that will serve. That is perhaps the greatest tragedy underlying Nope. Even as this glorious, stunning, well-lit footage of an honest-to-goodness close encounter is being captured, I can’t help but know, as an audience member, just how little impact this footage would have on the real world. It’d be a few minutes of infotainment – the main character on Twitter for a day, before a team of YouTubers duplicates the stunning vfx work of Guillaume Rocheron and his teams in an afternoon from a consumer-grade PC, albeit with a bit more blood, shakycam, and blurred edges. The conclusion of Emerald’s opening speech exemplifies this tension, as we see the Haywoods lead their horse away from set, to be immediately replaced with a purpose-built horse-shaped stand, clad in familiar chroma green, waiting just off to the side for the crew to remember the cardinal rule of keeping a film on time and budget: never work with children or animals (with an unspoken caveat that you can work your vfx artists to the bitter end).
I expect we’ll see a number of love letter to Hollywood type review quotes (between this and Tarantino’s last, the Hollywood horse ranch is getting a fairly lengthy swan song), but despite a few nods in the direction of The Industry, this is honestly a pretty straightforward creature feature, with its actions motivated by well-drawn characters dealing with an actual UFO in the sky above their house. Peele‘s last feature, Us, which also featured a suite of marvelous performances, was pilloried by comparison to his first, Get Out, for being a mere horror film. I’m being deliberately vague with this criticism because I thought it was nonsense then and now – I rather liked Us, but it is fair to say that Peele gave himself a tough act to follow. After three unique, well-drawn thrillers under his belt, he is not only a director to keep watching, but one who deserves quite as much trust as he gives to his performers and audience. Kaluuya’s turn is subdued bordering on minimalist, which fits the character nicely. Palmer is bombastic and larger than life, instantly commanding attention every moment she is on-screen. Yuen is scarred in a manner befitting Jupe’s childhood backstory, as well as (breaking the fourth wall for a moment) Yuen’s departure from that zombie show, with a scene so iconically horrific that I managed to see a clip of it more than once without trying. Perea and Wincott are surprising sources of levity, even if they more than hold their own as thriller participants.
Easily half the acting in this film is accomplished with characters slumped against interior walls, adrenaline coursing through their eyeballs, trying desperately not to look back at the thing they’re not quite sure they just saw. And then it comes again. If you can maintain patience during the first two acts – which contain no shortage of chilling moments amid an occasionally indulgent pace, the final third is where the film really soars.
FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10