Below is a somewhat spoiler-y (though not as spoiler-y as its three minute trailer) review of Nope. I’m still not entirely sure where I land on the film, so please take the following appraisal as a first impression left on the stove for a few days and only just remembered.
Nope stands for Not Of Planet Earth and may describe the state of Jordan Peele’s mind as he dreamed up his third feature – a horror/sci-fi blend of cowboys, aliens and Spielbergian homage that, while more mess than masterpiece, is at least an engaging and original cinema piece that will keep viewers talking (and perhaps paying more attention to clouds).
Otis ‘OJ’ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) lives on a California ranch with his father Otis (Keith David) where they train horses for use in Hollywood productions. One day, a quarter curiously falls from the sky and strikes Otis Senior in the eye, killing him instantly. OJ, along with his energetic sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), inherits the ranch and must keep it running – a difficult feat considering his lack of patience for the customer service side of the trade and Em’s penchant for her own self-promotion over the family business.
OJ takes his most magnificent horse, Lucky, to the set of a commercial being shot by esteemed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) and awaits his perpetually late sister. Upon arrival, Em takes over crowd entertainment and tells of the first moving image ever to be realised on film – a black man on a horse who happened to be their triply great grandfather. She receives mild appreciation and exits as OJ turns Lucky around per his instructions.
None of the crew nor cast of the production seem to have much respect or fear for the animal; crew members frequently get too close to him and OJ has to remind them to stay away from the back. When one of them startles him, Lucky kicks out a light centimetres away from the lead actress’ head; the Haywoods (along with Lucky) are ‘let go’ and must find alternative income.
Nearby Western theme park Jupiter’s Claim, run by Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), will buy their horses for uses undisclosed. Jupe, a former child star from a very ill-fated 90s sitcom called Gordy’s Home, not only runs the park but hosts private tours of his memorabilia room. Entered through a tacky secret door, this room functions much like a museum of death – an experience tourists can pay for to revel in the fascinating and the macabre. Jupe offers to buy the Haywood’s ranch; Em is enthused, but OJ is against it.
During this uncertain period, odd things start happening on the ranch. Horses behave out of character and bolt off, and some of them even disappear. OJ sees an object that’s “definitely not a plane” sweep by and settle in a cloud above their property, and when the siblings investigate further, they realise that the cloud is completely stationary. Inferring the same thing and seeing it as an opportunity to escape their financial woes, OJ and Em decide on trying to capture some Oprah-worthy footage of their new squatter, but no amount of wildlife training can prepare them for what lurks above.
Nope is an admirable attempt at recreating the thrills of a number of classics from Spielberg’s filmography and whose strength lies in the thrilling visuals and fantastic cinematography from Hoyte van Hoytema. In borrowing Nolan’s man (Hoytema worked on Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet), as well as his IMAX experience, Peele puts on a show for his viewers in telling a story full of what this film is about: spectacle. An overhead shot of Kaluuya furiously galloping on a slick, black horse imbues the spirit of his character’s ancestor and originator of the form, righting the wrong of his accomplishment being scrubbed from history. The final sequence, in which OJ and Em enlist the help of Holst (a shameless stand-in for Jaws’ Quint) to capture their neighbour on film, is the stuff of original blockbuster dreams.
The creature design is also impressive and inspired both by monsters of the deep and curiously, fabric. The threatening presence of the Haywoods’ lodger is always felt and felt deeply, never more than during sequences where Michael Abel’s ingenuitive music mirrors its movements. Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses At Night” is as terrifying now as “I Got 5 On It” is in its signifying the proximity of gold scissors in Us. There are so many elements to Nope that work wonderfully and that’s where the frustration lies – Peele, here, doesn’t know when to stop throwing more in.
The film’s opening scene is its most powerful, yet most annoyingly unexplored. Forgive the choice of words, but it seems the ‘missing link’ is cohesively relating the events shown here (and in flashbacks relating to Yeun’s character) to the Haywoods’ current struggles with their own beast. The strands are so tenuous that one might wonder if this was all inspired by a certain Oprah interview revisited after production had already begun. Chapter headings citing each of the animals in the Haywood inventory are an odd device holding little weight, and the number of messages that the film could be conveying get lost each time Peele loses interest and shifts to something else. The balls-to-the-wall opening tells the audience to strap in, but its conductor yanks away all restraints and throws passengers off at various intervals of the ride.
If the main takeaway is of lessons unlearnt and the cyclical nature of trauma and exploitation, then the finale shows us that, even if we look into the mirror of our own sins, we’ll be okay because the audience wants a happy ending.
Peele’s previous efforts seem much more focused in comparison (though Us fell slightly short of Get Out’s high bar) and I wonder if the truth lies in the edit. Because Nope is the very beast that Peele is trying to critique – he’s allowed his ideas to run off untamed and because he’s in that illustrious position of having a (deservedly) larger budget than his former features, is responsible for the tangle that results. Intentional or not, Nope might just be a social experiment complementary to Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal (currently streaming on Binge, or available on the wider web if you don’t want to support Murdoch) – whether its maker learns anything from it is a different story.
It’s entirely possible that, with time and further thought, my opinion of Nope may be bumped up a notch or two. But as it stands, I feel that the pre-screening fairy floss-adorned blue cocktail (served in a plastic saucer) is the perfect representation of the film: pretty fucking messy to drink, but undeniably tasty. 6/10.
Nope is on big screens now.