It speaks volumes to Jordan Peele as a filmmaker when Nope may be his worst film. The former Key & Peele comic has already directed two masterpieces in Get Out and Us, breaking new grounds in the horror genre and showing how to interweave meaningful political motifs into its story without beating an audience over the head with a message. Nope, on the other hand, is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the film puts Peele’s growth as a filmmaker front and center; it’s perhaps his most well-crafted film yet, and the performances are wonderful (with Keke Palmer being an obvious standout). But for as great as 80% of Nope is, it’s hampered by a turbulent third act that crawls its way past the finish line, and some of the best big-budget imagery since Arrival and Blade Runner: 2049 can’t fully salvage the third act.
In a small, rural town, there are occurrences of random objects falling from the sky. One of these episodes occurs and kills the father of OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood. The duo, along with the help of tech salesman Angel (Brandon Perea) and documentarian Antlers Hoist (Michael Wincott), set out to capture photo evidence of a UFO.
Nope opens with Nahum 3:6, which reads: “I will throw filth on you and make you vile, and set you up as a spectacle,” and boy, a spectacle Peele has made. Not to discount the direction of Get Out and Us, Peele has now tackled a new genre with his take on sci-fi while still staying true to his horror background by infusing some jump scares and scenes of high tension. There is one particularly great sequence in the stable at nighttime, and Peele will have you furiously searching through the clouds for a glimpse at the alien spaceship. You’ll be convincing yourself that you saw it much like my guide did when whale-watching in Iceland (we didn’t see any whales). It’s an impressive tightwire act that Peele pulls off, and it’s amazing how he can get an audience on the edge of their seats just as fast as he can have them sitting back in awe looking at the swooping shots of the desert. Speaking of, for having IMAX-size ambition and scope, it’s amazing that Nope mostly takes place in one of two locations; those being the ranches of the Haywoods and Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun).
While Jordan Peele has delivered some hard-hitting messages and layered motifs in his previous films, the overarching themes of Nope aren’t explored quite as deeply as desired. In all honesty, Peele’s third feature is the most lightweight of the bunch in terms of themes. That’s not a critique or a compliment, per se, it just depends on your personal expectations. I, for example, likely spent too much time trying to overanalyze every frame of the film when in all actuality, it’s a pretty straightforward film. Not that there aren’t more details in the story that will be a rewarding find on a rewatch (or the first watch by someone smarter than me), but I didn’t feel the same impact in Nope that I did with Peele’s other films.
By no means am I implying that Peele should have shoehorned a layered theme just for the sake of consistency, but the themes of exploitation and our obsession with spectacle in Nope aren’t explored to their fullest potential; especially the former. Not that I was expecting a Nightmare Alley or Elivs-like story about exploitation, but I think there was more to explore with Steven Yeun’s character and if that meant sitting through another 20 minutes, I’d happily do it.
On the topic of the theme of spectacle, the verse above from Nahum sums it up rather well. “Jupe” really embodies the human instinct to chase after spectacle. His journey begins as he watches a spectacle (or slaughter, to be more precise) and comes full circle with him being a ringmaster of sorts; selling spectacle to half-full audiences on his little ranch where “Jupe” and his family host shows like the ones you see at aquariums (only trade whales and dolphins for UFOs and cactus ICEEs).
Perhaps the biggest issue with Nope is not its runtime, which is a healthy 135 minutes that mostly keep you glued in, but the way some of the time is allocated. The whole audience at the screening (including myself), was in for the ride through the first two acts; every joke landed and you could feel the air get sucked out of the room as everyone held their breath during the moments of tension. For as great as the first two acts are, maybe some more time could have been given to “Jupe” instead of prolonging the third act.
To be fair, the third act of Nope is absolutely stunning to watch, and it’s predominantly where the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk, Ad Astra) stands out (though it’s spectacular throughout). Be that as it may, the third act is a bit repetitive and I was hoping for something a little bit more concise with Nope‘s grand crescendo.
Daniel Kaluuya really is becoming the De Niro to Peele’s Scorsese. Kaluuya is incapable of turning in a bad performance, and he’s great as the lead of Nope. His performance is very subtle and will have you wondering if his stubbornness is that or obsession. Steven Yeun is just a fantastic actor, and it’s great to see him in anything. But his character, “Jupe,” is a bit underused. There’s a whole movie right there with Yeun’s character, and I wish we could have had even 10 more minutes with his character. Brandon Perea brings comic relief while playing one of the members of your local Best Buy’s Geek Squad. While all of the actors bring it, none of them match Keke Palmer’s performance. Palmer is a jolt of energy any time she is on the screen from sisterly banter with Kaluuya to acting mortified at the events unfolding. It will be exciting to see where Palmer’s career takes off from here. Stealing the show in a Jordan Peele film can only bring good things.
If you’re looking for a unique blockbuster sans magical hammers and audiences full of kids wearings suits, Nope is a fantastic film in that regard. It’s probably Peele’s most well-made film — it shows his maturity and fully establishes him as a stellar and versatile filmmaker at the very least — but the prolonged finale, unlike UFOs, doesn’t stick the landing. It’s almost impossible to fully ignore that, even for as brilliant as much of Nope is. But even if Nope is Jordan Peele’s worst movie so far, his worst is still pretty damn good and the film is a must-see (especially in IMAX). And while I spent a lot of time trying to uncover the deeper layers of this otherworldly adventure, the biggest question that I am left with is: Do cactus-flavored ICEEs exist?
Universal Pictures will release Nope on July 22.