Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Jacob Kim
When you think of Jordan Peele (if you do at all), what comes to mind? His mega-hit Get Out? His other unsettling dystopian movie, Us? Maybe his comedy collaborations with Keegan-Michael Key? Or perhaps just as a voice from Toy Story 4? Whatever you think (or don’t think) of Peele, I bet one of the last things you’d associate him with is aliens. Horror, yes, but UFOs? Certainly not. Yet, here we are, with Peele’s latest project brimming with physical horror (mainly) rather than psychological. It’s always good for a filmmaker to branch out, see if they have hidden talents in any other genre, keeping them from repeating the same tropes again and again. Has Peele found another string to add to his bow, or has he strayed too far from the formula that has worked for him previously?
Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Kaluuya) and his sister, Emerald “Em” Haywood (Palmer), claim to be descended from a famous anonymous jockey from the time moving pictures began, and that their family have been handling horses for film productions ever since. After their father’s strange and untimely death, OJ and Em are having trouble keeping their business afloat. They are offered money for their ranch by local theme park owner Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun), who has also been buying horses from the Haywoods for use in his park. One night, OJ and Em notice a UFO abducting their horses. In a bid to make some money, they decide to try and capture it on film, even enlisting the help of Angel Torres (Perea), the employee who sets up their cameras. However, the Haywoods and Perea have no real understanding of the entity that is taking away their horses and the horrors it can, and will, unleash.
Nope is absolutely a world away (pun intended) from what we’re used to seeing from Peele. There are still some of his signature moves – some well-placed comedy from time to time, as well as themes that take some comprehending – but there’s also a level of gore that’s new for him. It’s not Saw or Evil Dead (2013) levels of ick, but there are some good shock tactics that make the gory parts, in a strange way, make sense rather than be for the sake of it. Of course, being a horror movie, Peele does employ some jump-scares, but actually, for the most part, they’re pretty decent. A good build up and, in my opinion, utter silence and no time for the audience to think (something that comes down to editing), is a great recipe for good jump-scares, and they’re done surprisingly well in this movie. So, for the horror side of things, this movie stands in good stead.
Where the movie flattens is on its themes and plot. Peele has reportedly described the movie to be about the human desire for spectacle and turning anything into such, particularly where it can turn a profit and when we use/abuse nature for entertainment. Instead, it comes across like Peele wanted to make an outright UFO-horror movie, but with his reputation for psychological thrillers and weaving in very poignant themes, he included aspects of this movie to push that theme just for the sake of having something to make Nope a recognisable Peele movie. Thus, it stands as a weak idea. There are also elements of exploitation which can be picked out, particularly given the Haywoods’ history, but that aspect could have been done so much better and given the story a stronger meaning. Just like its main themes, the plot could have been stronger. It starts off very interestingly, and we’re given characters that pique some curiosity, particularly with the backgrounds we’re informed of through flashbacks. But by the third act, it’s all started to fall apart to make way for the UFO (which itself has a very odd design… the idea behind it is interesting, but I’m not sure it worked).
Kaluuya and Peele created something extraordinary with Get Out, so the prospect of them working together again is very exciting. Kaluuya does his best as OJ, with the odd moments of comic timing working in his favour, but unfortunately, he is given a character that doesn’t stand for much overall. OJ is just there to hold our hands and over-explain everything. Contrasting this however is Palmer’s Em, who is a breath of fresh air in most of her scenes and has the most realistic reactions to the crazy situations she finds herself in. Some of her dialogue is a little corny, and even cringey at times, but she is perhaps the only character to really keep audiences from drifting, mostly thanks to the personality Palmer gives her. Perea’s Angel is kind of the token “everything”: sometimes the idiot, sometimes the clown, sometimes the clever tech guy or the guy that helps to move the plot along. The character does what he’s written to do, but it’s very mechanical. Yeun’s Jupe provides some of the more interesting aspects of the movie, and his scenes show another dynamic to an otherwise flat story, but he feels like a wasted character. Yeun’s performance is enjoyable, but, like most of the movie, Peele could have done a little more with Jupe. Wincott’s role as a documentary filmmaker is perhaps the most obvious device to push the theme of spectacle and the need to get “the perfect shot”, but feels lost until a certain point in the movie, when it’s really shoved in our faces.
Personally, I went into this movie knowing nothing about it, not even the alien aspects of it and not even having seen a trailer, I don’t think. My assumption was that it was going to be another psychological thriller from Peele. Not knowing what to expect in a movie going into it (thematically and genre-wise) is unusual for me, but I just knew that if there’s a new Peele movie, there’s no doubt I’ll see it. I could not have expected to see what I saw, and honestly, the jury is still out on it overall. It felt rushed and even messy at times, confused on what Peele actually wanted it to do. If he had made it as a pure horror film, no illusions regarding themes and such and put his all into that, it could have had so much more potential. It would have been great to see Peele stretch his arm in that direction and really push the horror boat (spaceship) out. Or, on the other hand, if there had been more focus on the themes, it could have been stronger and more relevant and recognisable to modern audiences. Nope isn’t one of Peele’s better projects, but it does have its moments, and it does have potential to become more of a cult classic. It wouldn’t put me off seeing another of his movies in the future, but next time I’ll be sure to know what I may be getting myself into.