Nope

The flying saucer movie has been a staple for over seventy years.  The first movie to feature a UFO, appropriately titled The Flying Saucer, came out in 1950.  Since then, the genre has primarily been about a flying saucer, or flying saucers, showing up on Earth causing problems for hapless humans.  There have been some great ones over the years, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET.  However, this category of science fiction mostly exists to provide cheap thrills.  Oh no, a big-headed alien has just abducted our helpless heroine!  Send in the Army and all of its tanks, jets and men with machine guns!

Leave it to Jordan Peele to breathe some much needed new life into what had become a  cartoonish genre (see: Independence Day).  Incredibly, Peele asks a question nobody had bothered to ask before: what if a flying saucer is something besides a spaceship?  Or something more than a spaceship?  To answer that question, Nope focuses on two characters with seemingly dissimilar backgrounds.  Ricky (aka “Jupe”) is a former child actor who witnessed a traumatic incident on set when a chimpanzee suddenly attacks other actors.  He grows up to run a Western-theme park outside of LA.  Otis Jr. (or “OJ”) is left to take care of the family ranch after the patriarch is killed by a mysterious rainstorm of small metal objects.  Added to the mix is OJ’s sister Em, who wants to get famous the TikTok way.  As luck would have it, a flying saucer appears and horses start disappearing.  It turns out that OJ and Jupe share an interesting connection after all, namely their relationship with animals and commerce.

With just his third feature film, director Jordan Peele continues to make a name for himself as a director who delivers well-made horror movies that entertain as much as they make you think.  I enjoyed this movie more than Us, which felt overburdened with too many metaphors and imagery for the sake of imagery.  Like Get Out, Nope is a lot of fun and features several exceptional performances.  It has things to say, which kinda add up in the end, but don’t get in the way of what the movie intends to be: a goofy and scary flying saucer movie.  Think of it as Signs for our social media conscious age.  Recommended.

Describing Nope as a “return to form” for Jordan Peele is a bit ridiculous, since he only has  directed three feature films to date.  When taken in the context of his previous films, however, Nope is a return to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map.  Get Out was so successful on so many levels, creating a worthy follow-up was going to be a challenge.  If Get Out was Peele’s home run, Us was Peele’s attempt at hitting a grand slam in his next at bat.  The latter was definitely a big swing, a movie filled with creepy visuals, interesting performances, Kubrick references and metaphors everywhere you looked.  Unfortunately, the movie was not scary and its metaphors were muddled and labored.  Us is a movie that I admired for its ambition, but failed at being entertaining.  It felt like a term paper written by a tortured student who has a lot to say but doesn’t have the wherewithal to say any of it concisely or convincingly.

With Nope, Peele has delivered a movie that is a worthy, if not equal successor to Get OutNope may not have the sly, assured wit of Get Out, but it is very entertaining and is genuinely scary at times.  Like both of Peele’s previous films, Nope has things it wants to say.  Fortunately, the subtext in Nope is relatively straightforward to comprehend.  And even if you don’t fully understand all of the subtextual messages weaved throughout the plot, you still should be able to enjoy the movie for what it is at its core: a clever twist on the old flying saucer science fiction movie.

Nope opens on a scene that is revisited several times in the movie, the last time fully revealing the horror of the situation.  In 1998, on the set of a television sitcom called Gordy’s Home, a chimpanzee animal actor suddenly and viciously attacks several members of the cast.  The triggering event seems to be that of a birthday balloon popping.  Ricky, a child actor in the cast, witnesses Gordy maiming a young girl actor and killing an older actor.  Gordy notices Ricky paralyzed with fear under a table and approaches him for an exploding fist bump.  Before that happens, the police shoot and kill Gordy.

This plot element felt directly inspired by the story of Travis, a chimpanzee who was purchased by Jerome and Sandra Herold in 1995 and lived with them for fourteen years.  They treated him like a human child, to the point where he dressed himself in human clothes and ate his meals with his “parents” at the dinner table.  In 2009, Travis suddenly attacked Charla Nash, his owner’s neighbor and friend, ripping off Nash’s face and hands.  In an effort to get Travis away from the severely wounded Nash, Sandra Herold tried to subdue Travis with a shovel and a knife.  When the police arrived, Travis attacked their car.  An officer was forced to shoot Travis several times, and he died.

The triggering events that caused the horrifying actions by the real-life Travis and the fictional Gordy may be different, but Nope argues that the underlying situation of both tragedies are the same.  In both cases, humans believe that they’ve essentially tamed a wild animal.  While Travis may have been superficially domesticated and Gordy professionally trained, the relationship between chimpanzees and humans has not had thousands of years to evolve like those of many other species that humans have domesticated.  (Nope makes its argument with horses, a species humans domesticated five or six thousand years ago.)  Similarly, humans have a tendency to believe that their perceived superiority over other animals will protect them when confronted by either a wild animal, or a domesticated animal that has suddenly turning feral.  Travis and Gordy tragically show how seemingly domesticated animals are never really domesticated, even when they wear cute human clothes and perform tricks.

In the present, a grown-up Ricky (or “Jupe”, Steven Yeun) runs a small Western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim.  The morbid curiosity surrounding the Gordy episode that Jupe witnessed first-hand has only grown over the years.  To capitalize on it, Jupe has built a secret room filled with memorabilia from the show and charges visitors an additional fee for admittance.  Some pay him thousands of dollars to spend the night in that room.  As Nope soon shows, Jupe has learned the wrong lessons from his traumatic experience.  Instead of tempting fate with wild (or not-so-wild) animals, he has decided to exploit his own personal tragedy to feed the segment of humanity that is obsessed with animals attacking other animals, including humans.  In his own way, he’s satiating the same segment of the public who are obsessed with television shows like When Animals Attack or Shark Week.  Unlike those programs, he’s decided to take the experience to a whole new level.  How does any of this relate to flying saucers and/or aliens?  That will be revealed shortly.

Next door to Jupe’s theme park is the Hollywood Horses Ranch (or HHR), owned and operated by Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) and his son Otis Junior (or “OJ”, Daniel Kaluuya).  One day, the electricity around the ranch goes out and a freak storm appears overhead.  Small metallic objects rain from the sky, including a coin that pierces Otis’s skull, mortally wounding him.  OJ is left to take over running the ranch and following through on the gigs his father scheduled before his death.  While OJ is comfortable with managing the horses and the general upkeep of the ranch, he is not comfortable being around people.  Enter his sister Emerald (or “Em”, Keke Palmer).

Em is a social butterfly and is intent on becoming a star.  I think of her as the flash to OJ’s cast iron pan.  Unlike OJ, Em is easily distracted from the task at hand.  Their first gig since their father’s death involves taking one of their horses to a set of a commercial.  Unlike his father, OJ doesn’t have the presence to command the respect of the crew.  Em is able to get everyone’s attention, but quickly heads off to network and make nice.  Unfortunately, the camera crew spooks the horse and OJ and Em lose the gig to a robotic prop horse.  (If you wanted proof that this movie was taking place on the outskirts of Hollywood, Donna Mills was on set.)  If you’re still wondering how all of Nope’s musing about the relationship between humans and animals, don’t worry.  That connection is coming.

One evening, the electricity around the ranch goes out and OJ sees what he thinks is a flying saucer in the sky.  One of the horses runs away and disappears, and OJ hears odd shrieking noises coming from the sky.  His curiosity piqued, OJ and Em head to the local electronics store for surveillance equipment.  Since OJ and Em have no experience installing any of what they bought, they hire Angel (Brandon Perea), the sales rep from the electronics store, to install it.

Jupe has tendered an offer to OJ and Em for the HHR ranch, evidently to include the horses as part of his theme park attractions.  Em wants OJ to sell but OJ is reluctant.  At this point Jupe reveals a secret room in his office that is filled with memorabilia from Gordy’s Home.  When he confides to OJ and Em that people pay him a lot of money to spend the night in that room, the contrast between Jupe and OJ becomes clear.  Jupe has no respect for animals and only sees them as avenues for profit.  OJ has spent his life around animals, particularly horses.  He’s learned how to coexist with them, how to tame them, and how to respect their innate wild nature.  He’s able to calm his horse down when it is startled on the set.  He understands what makes horses tick and has a healthy relationship with them.  OJ’s background will serve him well when the movie’s big twist is revealed.

That night, OJ sees a flying saucer in the sky, but the camera pointed in that direction was obscured by a praying mantis blocking the lens.  Angel, however, has been monitoring the camera footage all along and notices a cloud in the sky that never moves.  It’s an eerie reveal that should have been made by either OJ or Em, not by a character who is completely superfluous to the plot.

The next day, when Jupe does his act in front of a very small audience, his reasoning for buying the HHR comes clear.  He deduced that the flying saucer is after horses, and he wants to use the ones on the HHR as bait.  Unfortunately, his belief that the flying saucer is only after horses turns out to be incredibly naive.  When the horse served up by Jupe fails to move, the flying saucer abducts Jupe, his assistants and everyone watching the act.  They scream from inside the spaceship, held captive by what looks like glowing garbage bags.  They eventually become silent, which is never a good sign when people are abducted.  They probably never realized it until it was too late, but they became exactly what they paid to see: animals eaten alive by another animal.  Wait, what?  (Stay with me here.)

With no gigs on the horizon and not seeing the flying saucer for several days, OJ and Em decide to take Jupe up on his offer to watch his show.  When they enter the park, however, they find it abandoned and the ground covered with small metal objects.  That night, the spaceship attacks OJ and Em.  After watching it move in the sky and over the surrounding hills, OJ realizes that the spaceship doesn’t move like a spaceship at all, but like an animal.  He avoids attracting the spaceship’s attention by not looking it in the eye.  The ship tries to capture Em but she hides in the house.  Before leaving, it emits blood and metal objects over the Haywood house.

I have to tip my hat to Peele.  The idea of having the flying saucer not be filled with little green men with bulbous heads but be the alien itself is an ingenious twist.  Nope takes a decidedly goofy turn after that reveal, which I was completely fine with because the movie had a playful sense of humor in the preceding acts.  (There’s a hilarious bit where Jupe’s kids dress up as aliens to scare OJ.)  Also, I never got the impression that Peele took this movie as seriously as Us.  Peele seems to have had a lot of fun making this movie, and I picked up on that vibe.  I can see how some folks would have a problem with the movie taking a sharp turn into what I would call Signs-land, but how seriously should anyone take a movie about a flying saucer that eats horses and people?

Now that he knows that the flying saucer is actually an animal of sorts, OJ is convinced that he can tame it.  Well, maybe not tame it like a horse, but distract it enough so that Em can capture it on film and make bank.  For this effort, she recruits the director of the commercial they got fired from, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).  Turns out Holst is a big fan of capturing wild animals on film and agrees to the dangerous assignment.  He has a camera that he can manually crank when the flying saucer disables all electricity nearby.  

To lure the spaceship out of hiding, Em cranks up the R&B.  OJ is able to keep the creature at bay and Holst captures the creature with a manual camera.  If you don’t believe a man can wrangle a flying saucer, well, you probably still won’t believe it after seeing this movie, but Peele manages to sell it with some excellent camera work and convincing CGI.  It’s a ludicrous sequence to be sure, but it’s fun when taken at the zany level it’s presented with.  (I’ve never seen Cowboys and Aliens, so I don’t have a point of comparison to make here.)  In all honesty, I just went with it because I figured whatever happened next would be even crazier, and it was!

A TMZ reporter shows up on a motorcycle to crash the filming party.  He doesn’t know that the spaceship disables electricity, so his electric bike stalls out and he’s quickly sucked up and eaten.  In what I can only describe as Peele’s ode to a director dying to get the perfect shot, Holst allows himself to be captured and eaten by the creature while filming it.  I’ll take Peele’s word that all auter’s are willing to die for the chance to capture the perfect shot on film, but this was a bit silly.

All along, Nope has been commenting on how differently people react to approaching doom.  Some, like the poor souls at Jupiter’s Claim, become paralyzed with fear and are unable to react.  Others, like the residents of HHR, wizely run away.  The climactic confrontation between flying saucer and man introduces a third route that has become all too prevalent in today’s society: ignoring the danger completely and turning into a reporter in the field.

Since Holst’s film of the event is in the process of being digested, Em takes the TMZ dude’s bike and heads to the theme park.  She does this even though she just saw the guy get vacuumed up by the flying saucer and heard him scream when he was “eaten”.  Em has had her mind set on becoming rich and famous by way of exclusive footage, and nothing will get in her way, not even certain death.  Stangely, Nope never bothers to make what would be very obvious  commentary about the state of society today, namely how people choose to whip out their smartphones and start filming instead of helping a stranger getting beaten up on the street.  The movie provides itself with several opportunities to wax on this topic but oddly never follows through.

After arriving at the park, Em untethers a huge balloon mascot to lure the spaceship over, and uses a novelty arcade wishing well camera at the theme park to take still photographs of it.  The creature mistakes the huge balloon for a meal and attempts to eat it and explodes.  Thankfully, Em’s appreciation for analog photography pays off, and she has plenty of still photographs of the alien to sell.  OJ is still alive and arrives at the theme park on horseback.  Both smile and acknowledge that their crazy plan worked.  Someone will be tasked with cleaning up the bits of flying saucer creature falling to the ground, and my money is on Angel.

Like the best flying saucer movies, Nope is goofy, scary, insightful and a lot of fun.  It reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, another big, bold and ultimately silly movie that I enjoyed tremendously.  Nope isn’t a cheat like Signs, though.  Instead of showing us only a single alien while an invasion is happening all around the planet, Nope delivers.  After some initial hide-and-seek in the first act, the flying saucer/alien creature is shown in all its glory the rest of the way.  People have mentioned the film’s $68m budget as the reason why it won’t turn a profit.  I don’t care about that and I suspect Peele doesn’t either.  The CGI used to render the flying saucer in both of its forms is convincing and beautiful.  I’d rather see an incredible flying saucer than quick glimpses and shadows.  The money spent making this movie is definitely on the screen, and the movie is better for it.

As with Us, Peele has continued to embrace a big canvas style of direction with Nope.  Instead of relying on the camera tricks and gimmicks that suffused the former, Peele opts for a much more straightforward and deliberate way to tell this story.  For example, the obvious and distracting homages to Kubrick are nowhere to be found in Nope.  This time around, Peele creates environments that serve to frame the characters without overwhelming them.  I would describe Nope as a sign of Peele’s growing artistic maturity.  The movie is a reflection of the confidence he has in his talents and instincts to tell the story he wants to tell without overdoing it.

Of course, having a great cast like the one in this movie makes Peele’s job that much easier.  Daniel Kaluuya, so good in Get Out, plays OJ as a man whose quiet and shy nature masks his intelligence and awareness.  The performance is a master class in how to play a character that the audience connects to in spite of his stoic nature.  I always knew how OJ felt in any situation in Nope, his emotions subtly telegraphed via a simple look or a glance.  OJ has so few lines of dialog in the movie, I suspect his performance would have worked just as well if he didn’t have any.  Kaluuya’s gift is that he makes it look so effortless.  Now that he’s won an Oscar, everybody knows he’s a great actor.  His work in Nope shows how great he is in a variety of roles.

As I mentioned above, Keke Palmer provides the flash and the sizzle to Kaluuya’s cast iron skillet.  Her performance as Em is a lot of fun, but also comes with a lot of nuance.  Making a character who is careless and irresponsible likable is not an easy task, and Palmer succeeds.  She makes Em the Yin to OJ’s Yang, the extrovert to his introvert.  Her plan to become famous by capturing footage of the flying saucer may sound like a get-rich-quick scheme, but Palmer effectively sells it as one of the few ways Em can experience success outside of her father’s shadow.  In a lesser actor’s hands, the character could have come off as glib and superficial.  Palmer renders Em as a person we all know and can sympathize with, if not understand.

Steven Yeun does a nice job as Ricky “Jupe” Park.  His friendly and easygoing nature helps sell what is a small supporting role.  He’s a good sport in taking this part, considering how his character was just hitting his stride when he was suddenly vacuumed up and eaten by the flying saucer.  I never understood how his character went from child actor to running a Western-themed park outside of LA, though.

Keith David is an actor I immediately recognized but would have a difficult time recalling what movie or television show I saw him in last.  According to his IMDB page, he has well over three hundred credits, so I’m confident that I’ve seen him more than a few times.  Regardless, he perfectly epitomizes the value character actors provide in movies like this one.  He isn’t on screen in Nope for long, but he manages to give a complete sense of Otis Sr in just a few minutes of screen time.  His performance is critical to helping us understand why his children turned out the way they did.  A testament to how good a supporting performance is whether we miss the character when he’s no longer part of the story.  I wished he was part of the story longer.

Michael Wincott’s Antlers Holst was a hoot.  He’s another excellent character actor I feel like I see again and again.  I remember him from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and The Crow (1994).  He’s always had a noteworthy voice, but the years have aged it like whisky to the point where it’s practically a special effect all by itself.  His line readings in Nope are just incredible.  If he’s not getting offers for voice-over work, or work in animated films, there is no hope for Hollywood.

The one character that was a false note for me was Brandon Perea’s Angel.  This is nothing against Perea’s acting in the role, which was fine.  The character is completely irrelevant to how the movie turns out, and is kind of creepy in how he ingratiates himself into OJ and Em’s lives.  I didn’t understand how they just shrugged off his confession that he watches the footage from their security cameras without their permission.  I have not figured out why Peele kept him as part of the plot until the end, because any other character could have become entangled with barbed wire and ultimately expelled by the spaceship.

As with Peele’s previous films, Nope is expertly crafted. The movie was beautifully shot by Hoyte van Hoytema and expertly edited by Nicholas Monsour. It also features a top-notch sound design by Johnnie Burn. It’s so good that I would put it on par with that of David Lynch. If Peele ever releases a movie that looks and/or feels cheap, we will know he’s been replaced by a Pod Person.

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