“Nope,” the third feature film from acclaimed director Jordan Peele, may be one of the most memorable sci-fi films of the last 20 years.
Drawing heavy inspiration from the films of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg, “Nope” is the most spectacular and awe-inspiring film that Peele has ever made.
This latest film is primarily a sci-fi thriller which incorporates themes of the western as well. The fantastical story hinges on a background of realistic world building, and features some of the most stark and frightening imagery of all his works.
In a world where more and more classified knowledge is unearthed, and science seeks to answer the explicitly hard questions of the planet we call home, Peele utilizes a familiar trope to viciously prey on the insecurities of audiences everywhere: alien life forms.
The premise is simple enough, a ranching family in Agua Dulce, California starts to witness odd occurrences around their property, such as electrical power going out, strange precipitation and odd behavior from some of their horses.
The family itself has a rich backstory. They run the only black-owned horse trainer business in Hollywood, tracing their lineage back to the first motion picture ever. That image, one of a Bahamian jockey riding a horse, produced in 1878 with multiple still photos, features a direct descendant of the family that owns the ranch, the Haywood’s.
This meta-nod to the history of motion pictures is just one of many in a film about the business of filmmaking. The Haywood’s have been involved in several famous films throughout the years.
As a director, Peele has always written his characters like real people. They’re unique, nuanced and believable. The main character, Otis “OJ,” Haywood Jr. is played by Daniel Kaluuya, Peele’s collaborator from 2017’s landmark film “Get Out.” Stoic and hardworking, OJ tries to keep his father’s horse trainer business afloat following his death due to bizarre atmospheric circumstances.
To supposedly aid him in this task is his sister Emerald–played to great effect by the energetic Keke Palmer–who seeks fortune and fame in Hollywood. She feels less connected to the family business and wishes to sell it to Ricky “Jupe” Park, a former child star and entrepreneur played by Steven Yeun of “Walking Dead” fame.
Jupe has set up his own desert attraction, a tourist attraction called Jupiter’s Claim. After one of the Haywoods’ horses becomes irritated by the cast of a commercial, it bucks and attempts to kick one of the actors, causing them to lose the job and fall into even more dire financial straits.
This forces OJ to sell some of his horses to Jupe, who is using them for unknown purposes on his own ranch. Later, when OJ witnesses an unidentified flying object, which has been devouring his horses and releasing any inorganic matter in the form of precipitation, his sister encourages him to try and film the phenomenon to help them become famous and wealthy.
Jupe’s backstory is vividly painted as well. In a shocking flashback, we discover that he was a child actor on a sitcom which starred a chimpanzee named “Gordy” as well. In a terrible sequence of events, the animal becomes upset and kills many of the cast members before turning to young Jupe for a fist bump just as animal control fatally shoots the chimpanzee.
This event leaves Jupe emotionally scarred and he becomes addicted to the idea of spectacle being the most important thing. His theme park features memorabilia from that fateful day on set and tourists come from far and wide for a chance to live in that tragedy, even for a brief moment.
When Jupe starts advertising his “star lasso show,” we soon discover that he is also aware of the UFO, and plans to feed one of the recently bought Haywood horses to it in a vicious display of arrogance. In an almost entirely quiet desert scene, spectators look on as Jupe tries to summon the aliens to feast on the horse.
Jupe does his best to bring them down, but soon the spacecraft hovers above his theme park and reveals itself to be a living, breathing predator, capable of devouring animals and humans alike.
What ensues is a mousetrap-like plan in which OJ and Emerald, along with their electronically inclined friend, Angel Torres (played by Brandon Perea), try to trick and capture the beast on film for posterity. They take to calling the terrible saucer “Jean Jacket” after a horse that their late father promised Emerald she could train. Due to his prior commitment to using said horse on a shoot for 2001’s “The Scorpion King,” OJ is instead given the responsibility of training Jean Jacket for this purpose.
OJ chooses Jean Jacket as the alien’s name as a nod to his sister, giving her a chance to reclaim her childhood and finally meet something in her life that she can control.
Peele’s latest entry, “Nope” is a dynamic engine of American myth making. Taking cues from M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” it utilizes modern fear of UFOs to put the audience in a truly precarious position as they writhe in their seats and ponder the potential reality that the film portrays.
Peele’s America, however, is less Area-51, and more like Cormac McCarthy’s dangerous idea of the west as a strange and untamed land. Jean Jacket cannot be tamed in the same way Gordy the chimpanzee couldn’t be molded into a professional actor.
Beware what you try to conquer, Peele seems to be saying. Jean Jacket is proof of this, as even when the Americans settled the west, there were still things that evaded their grasp.
In yet another original screenplay, Peele accurately captures the precocious paranoia dwelling deep in modern American minds, preying on their insecurities with a truly disturbing spectacle of a film.
In an interview with SyFy, Peele said, “…‘Nope’ is about the human addiction to spectacle.” No other word perhaps best encapsulates Peele’s intentions for his third feature film.
There is great beauty in this production. The costumes, the stylish street clothes worn by Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya make their characters feel real and grounded. The shiny horses galloping in the oddly feral Agua Dulce desert glide by and capture our gaze. Even Jean Jacket, a horrendous aerial predator, possesses visual grandeur with its sleek, disc-like body. When it reveals its final appearance, it is unlike anything you have ever seen put to screen.
Peele again gives us a family in crisis in the Haywood’s, as he forces them to come to terms with the strange and sad reality of their lives. In an era where we know more about UFOs than ever before, Peele expertly plays into that niche by disrupting our expectations and allowing this particular UFO to become a living breathing entity instead.
The Haywoods have a deep connection to the film industry, both in their business and their family history. However, Hollywood has a history of exploitation; the Haywoods are a prime example of this. Their background makes for a unique allegory, which is used to showcase America’s conquest of the west and the greed it used to fuel the manifest destiny of bygone years.
With a budget of $68 million, the film’s special effects are impressive. The sequences involving Jean Jacket are among the most haunting images of alien life ever put to film.
The scenes that take place at night, with the bluish black fog hanging below the backlit moon, are among Peele’s strongest to date. He utilizes riveting, uninterrupted long takes which bring forth memories of Paul Thomas Anderson, while the color contrasts and action sequences conjure up Spielberg.
As “Nope” plays out on screen, a vast modern western with present day implications, there are moments that are as entertaining as they are tense. The moment Jean Jacket appears in the sky for the first time is as shocking a visual as you will see on screen this year.
Jupe’s children dress up as aliens to harass OJ, but the audience doesn’t find out they aren’t real until later. This is the biggest jump scare in the film, and conjures up a nod back to the title when OJ simply says, “Nope,” refusing to acknowledge the scary scene. There are multiple plays on the title here as the cast of our film decides that the reality Peele has created for them is just too much to handle. Little moments like this add in a dab of humor to break through the hard outer layer of sci fi-based horror.
The film is paired with a re-release trailer for “Jaws,” the original summer blockbuster, and “Nope” works hard to replicate that feeling. If you are looking for spectacle and a way to escape the summer heat, then seeing “Nope” in theaters likely won’t disappoint you. But do yourself a favor and enjoy it in IMAX, the loud, bombastic and fully immersive environment it was meant to be shown in.
Another riveting aspect of the film is the sounds that are used, especially when Jean Jacket is around. The way the creature distorts electricity is unsettlingly surreal and is enough to give you nightmares. When it feeds, it does so with the immense strength of a vicious predator and the screams of its prey echo outwards into the desert for miles.
The originality of Peele’s “Nope” will certainly leave a profound impact on any who come into contact with it. It is safe to say that the summer blockbuster is indeed back, even in the era of streaming we seem to occupy at the moment. Through sheer will, Peele accomplishes amazing technical feats and brings astonishing visual splendor to life with his latest film.
The strength images hold in our society is truly felt in “Nope.” Peele has delivered again, and one can only imagine his next film will have similar value. His work seems to wow the world with shock and awe before escaping into the annals of film, much like Jean Jacket himself leaping down from the clouds and then back into the dark California sky.