The best part of writer-director Jordan Peele’s atmospheric science-fiction extravaganza Nope is the beginning, an introduction—after a brief prologue—to a world unlike any most of us have ever seen, and a character rich with possibility. In that early sequence, we meet Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ Haywood, part of a family who has run a working ranch for generations. We’ll later learn that the business, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, provides beautiful, well-trained horses for movies and television, and for years it’s been a lucrative operation for OJ’s father, Otis (Keith David), as it was for his father and grandfather before him. But very early in the film, as Otis sits astride a white steed named Ghost, disaster strikes. Just before it does, OJ notes the gathering of some strange clouds, and he hears a weird howling in the sky—given Peele’s penchant for biblical references and imagery, it could be the sound of apocalyptic horses freed from their riders and out for vengeance.
The next thing OJ knows, his father has been struck by an invisible something. A minute ago Otis had been crowing over how well the business had been doing, and now he’s slumped in the saddle. OJ rushes him to the hospital, to no avail. Later he stares in disbelief at the small projectile that killed, or helped kill, his father, cleaned up and housed in a baggie. This scene shows, beautifully, how a life can change in a minute, and sets up a challenge rich with dramatic possibilities: OJ now has to take the reins of a successful family business—a Black-owned one at that, with a reputation to uphold—and as Kaluuya plays him, dutiful and sensitive but a bit reticent about facing the world, we can see he’s not sure he’s up to the task.
Nope could have been all about that, or about that but also layered with elements of sci-fi horror. But the early promise of Nope doesn’t lead where you expect. Instead, it leads to dozens of unexpected places, which is oddly less gratifying. What OJ sees in the sky, and what it wants with humans, becomes a little clearer with each passing scene. There are other players in this drama: OJ’s outgoing and magnetic sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), is better at facing the public than he is, but she wants nothing to do with the business. (OJ’s work demands that he know how to handle animals and deal with the human egos of show business, and it’s the latter that throws him.)
Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) is a former child star who runs a schlocky Old-West tourist attraction near the Haywood ranch, but who has designs on an even bigger enterprise. He’s also scarred, it appears, from a childhood run-in with a murderous chimpanzee, a story Peele hints at in Nope’s prologue and fleshes out later in a terrifying flashback. The other characters hovering around the vast, fringey margins of Nope include the employee of a local Best Buy-type store, Angel (Brandon Perea), and a cocky weirdo cinematographer with the assertively eccentric name Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). At one point we’re treated to some grainy footage he’s obsessed with, which appears to show a boa constrictor getting ready to devour a tiger. This is the movie’s way of proving he’s a man of sick tastes, but it’s also an image we can’t unsee.
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And then there’s the mysterious thing in the sky that no one is supposed to talk about until after they’ve seen the movie. It’s a thing with a hole. There are certain things it doesn’t like. It follows no rules but its own, until Otis learns that maybe it will follow some rules, and how much you think those rules make sense—even in the highly subjective world of science fiction—will dictate how much pleasure you get out of Nope.
Because Nope, enjoyable as a spectacle but conceptually barely thought through, is all over the place. Peele can’t take just one or two interesting ideas and follow their trail of complexity. He likes to layer ideas into lofty multitextured quilts—the problem is that his most compelling perceptions are often dropped only to be obscured by murkier ones. He has an eye for dazzling visuals, but it seems he comes up with the visuals first and tries to hook ideas to them later. In this case, he decides those inflatable tube dancers you see outside used-car lots might be cool to use somehow, but their effectiveness, visually or in terms of moving the plot forward, is debatable.
Contrary to popular opinion, horror movies don’t necessarily have to be about anything: we’ve all read enough treatises on how 1950s horror films were really all about fear of the Communist threat to last a lifetime. Sometimes great horror films are about nothing more than our own shadowy inner lives, playing on fears that seem silly in the daylight but become much more overwhelming at night. Peele’s movies don’t have to be about anything—it could be enough that their imagery is often haunting, and inventive, by itself. One thing’s for sure: he’s comfortable with grand orchestrations, and he enjoys filling the expanse of a movie screen. There are plenty of gorgeous images in Nope, including one that Peele makes us wait for: the sight of Kaluuya, a regal actor, on the back of a horse, a glorious Elmer Bernstein-inflected score swirling around him, as sizzling and dramatic as a setting desert sun. Peele loves movies, all sorts of movies. It seems he loves making movies, too.
But in Nope—as in his last feature, the otherworldly horror film Us—he makes us believe he’s working up to some complex and powerful thesis only to switch gears every 20 minutes or so and jerk us in another direction. And to leave us, in the end, wondering what it all means. The wondering is supposed to be the point. Peele, it seems, is one of those “It means what you think it means” filmmakers, which delights some audiences but comes off as a copout for viewers who want to know what a filmmaker is thinking, because ostensibly those thoughts are more interesting than anything we could come up with on our own. Peele’s best film, his debut Get Out, worked both as a twisty horror fantasy and as a contemplation of whether we can ever be a post-racial society. (The grim answer, at least for now, is no.) And elements of his 2019 Us were pure genius: who else would think of using sunlight-deprived semi-zombies as a metaphorical element in a parable about class complacency?
But Peele’s ideas and aims became more scattershot as that film wore on, and the same is true of Nope. Maybe the point of Nope—or one of its points—is that it’s folly to believe we can control nature, especially the nature of other galaxies. It also appears to be a comment on our modern hunger for increasingly extravagant stimulation, online or elsewhere. Or maybe the main point is just to walk out thinking “Wow!” But if you’re left un-wowed, you’re not alone. Nope means what you think it means, but there’s no shame in wishing it could mean just a little more.
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