Thursday, July 21, 2022

Review: NOPE

 by Rob DiCristino

In which Jordan Peele loses the thread.

Spoilers for Nope ahead.

“I stopped writing this movie about twenty times because I thought it was impossible,” said Jordan Peele while accepting his Oscar for writing Get Out. “I thought it wasn’t going to work. I thought no one would ever make this movie.” He was right. Known primarily as a sketch comedian and lacking any feature credits to his name, Peele took an incredible risk pitching a deeply personal, genre-bending horror opus that would test both his narrative craftsmanship and his tonal finesse. Even with the project greenlit, Peele was rightfully terrified: Few artists get it right the first time. Hell, most of them would trade vital organs for a shot at a hit on the fifth or sixth try. But Peele could feel Get Out in his bones. He was hungry. Inspired. And it paid off. Get Out was a towering achievement, one of the few films in recent memory to earn both rapturous critical acclaim and undeniable cultural ubiquity. Just like that, Peele was an auteur. A maestro. A master of horror. Imagine the pressure! Imagine capturing lightning in a bottle only for the world to beg you to do it again.
His latest attempt is Nope, a sci-fi spectacle that blends Peele’s eye for character and allegory with a new level of visual ambition. Get Out veteran Daniel Kaluuya returns as OJ (yes, OJ) Haywood, proprietor of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. Like his father and grandfathers before him (including the one and only Keith David as OJ Sr.), OJ breeds and trains horses for work in film and television. When Senior dies in a freak accident, however, OJ and his fast-talking sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) consider selling the ailing ranch to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), a former child star who now runs a Western-themed tourist trap called Jupiter’s Claim. But one night, OJ notices something hovering in the clouds above the ranch, something that’s affecting the weather and spooking the horses. Sensing an alien visitor, the Haywoods enlist Geek Squad grunt Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and master cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to help them capture indisputable proof of alien life before the entity makes itself known to others in the area.

Whereas Get Out tackled racial injustice and Us took aim at class inequity, Nope’s clearest and most apparent target seems to be the exploitative practices of the entertainment industry. The Haywoods claim to be Hollywood royalty, descendants of the black jockey featured in Eadweard Muybridge’s “The Horse in Motion,” the oldest known example of a motion picture. It’s a cute story, most producers say, but it’s not quite enough to earn them a sustainable living. Park’s star is fading, as well, his acting career having been waylaid by a vicious chimpanzee attack on the set of a ‘90s sitcom. Only a small museum of mementos remains, an awkward conversation piece for Jupe’s A-list clients and a clear example of commodified trauma. This animal motif — specifically the idea that a wild, territorial animal can not truly ever be trained for performance — seems central to Nope’s overall themes. Chapter headings highlight the mysterious behavior of the Haywood horses, and the hovering entity itself is eventually revealed to be predatory and animalistic in nature.
These are great and interesting ideas! The trouble is that very few of them feel central to Nope’s storytelling while we’re watching it. They have to be excavated after the fact, and even their revelation adds very little to the Haywood’s story arc. Instead, Nope’s initial thriller setup gives way to an Inception-esque filmmaking parable that finds our heroes drawing the entity — which has a maw that flickers like a camera shutter — out of hiding and into a carefully choreographed performance that they can capture on Holst’s hand-cranked camera (as the entity causes electrical disruptions). Peele’s intent is clear, and it’s fun to see our characters make a movie, but the metaphor is severely muddled. Is the entity a viewer or a performing animal? Both? In fact, this entire sequence exposes yet another issue with Nope’s storytelling: What do the Haywoods really want? Even in the final moments, it’s unclear whether their goal is to earn fame and fortune from images of the entity, drive it from its perceived territory, or avenge their father by destroying it entirely.
It’s this inattention to detail and sloppy thematics that make Nope an incredibly frustrating entry in Peele’s exciting and often groundbreaking cannon. The film has its virtues, of course: Kaluuya is brilliant as the laconic OJ, Palmer shines with wit and charm, and Peele meets the challenge of skyward spectacle with some truly stunning images. That will be enough for some audiences, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But a screenwriter as talented as Peele deserves to be held to a higher standard. He deserves to be made to sweat and toil over his third screenplay as much as he did his first. He deserves to be told “no,” to be told that these characters lack motivation and that he’s overextended himself reaching for ideas that he fails to flesh out with any real dramatic precision. Peele has most certainly earned the right to evolve, to take chances and work through some new inspiration. But his lethal and subversive brilliance seems to shine best through adversity, and maybe he just needs a new challenge for that brilliance to start shining through again.

Nope hits theaters this Friday.


  1. Saw Nope today, and I pretty much agree with Rob's criticisms. The plot and character motivations aren't always clear, and while there are certainly strong thematic "vibes," they do feel a bit more referenced than neatly connected to the story.

    All that said, I had a blast watching this movie. The on-screen action is compelling and suspenseful, the performances are strong, and Jordan Peele really does have a great feel for creating a memorable visual.

    I think my reaction to Us was very similar to this article's reaction to Nope. Although I thought there was a lot to like in Us, I couldn't help feeling a bit frustrated or let down at the fact that the movie's themes didn't feel as tightly connected to the narrative as they were in Get Out. I think that perhaps the relative letdown of Us (again, a movie I like) sort of relieved some of that expectant pressure for Peele to live up to the astronomically high allegorical bar set by his debut feature. I don't exactly think I came into Nope with lower expectations of overall quality. I think that maybe I was just a bit more ready to take the narrative at face value, without thinking as much about how or whether the "big ideas" of the movie were connected to plot events.

    Go see Nope if you can! Even if you're a little disappointed, I think you'll be a lot entertained.

  2. There was a lot in the film that felt either unfinished, or intentional. I can't tell. Like, there were long stretches that I felt the plot was going nowhere, and it kinda pays off, but kinda doesn't. And OJ is hard to read for a lot of the film. Is he simple or stoic? I just can't read Kaluuya sometimes. And much of the film is very cynical, only when it's really really not? I read Peele said he wanted to make a blockbuster film that anyone could get something out of. Maybe it's a little of a mess on purpose? I just can't tell. I liked it, but probably won't revisit for a while.

    1. So I've been thinking about this movie a lot the past few days. I went running and saw a stationary cloud and started laughing manically. Anyway, I just posted this elsewhere, but wanted to put it here.

      The part I keep thinking back to the most is when Yeun's character is reliving the full chimp attack, and we see that he's doing this while practicing his speech to reveal the alien as part of his act. The chimp attacked everyone else, but gave him a fist bump. Maybe he mistakenly believes (as part of his trauma) that he had formed a connection with the chimp, and thus was exempt from its violence. I can only guess he assumes he has the same connection with Jean Jacket.

      So I do think there is something here about man incorrectly assuming we're exempt from nature's fury, or that we're bros with it so we'll be fine, when Nope.