Dir: Jordan Peele. Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea, Wrenn Schmidt, Barbie Ferreira, Keith David. 15, 130 minutes.
When proof of extraterrestrial life slides its way into the lives of Nope’s underdog heroes, their first instinct is to find a way to monetise it. That’s the most honest reaction I’ve ever seen in a horror film. It’s also exactly what I’d expect from Jordan Peele, a filmmaker who sees the social condition with such simple clarity that his films always feel like a series of mic drops. Nope is funny. It’s weird as hell. It’s a large-scale, popcorn sci-fi with a razor-sharp intellect. Otis Jr “OJ” Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) recently lost their father in a freak accident. They’ve coped by running in opposite directions. OJ shuts down totally; Em lives her days as one excitable performance opportunity after another. But it’s easy to unite them under a single front, namely when an opportunity presents itself to catch “the Oprah shot”, or concrete, un-debunkable UFO footage that TV hosts would pay thousands for.
The possibility of extraterrestrials, as Brandon Perea’s tech kid hanger-on Angel explains, today seems less tied to philosophical questions about our existence, and more to pop culture fluff like the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series. Peele’s underlying message with Nope is clear: there’s no remaining part of the galaxy that can’t be exploited for entertainment. TikTok, YouTube and the local news cycle dangle the promise of overnight fame in front of people’s eyes, subliminally training us all to view every experience – no matter how traumatic – as potential content.
And Peele, with that same exquisite imagination he brought to Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), always finds the most unexpected ways to prove his point. Take Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, who can hide decades of sadness in a smile), the owner of an Old West attraction known as Jupiter’s Claim. It’s been fully Disneyfied into a ghoulish parody of the American myth, much like the pier-side hall of mirrors in Us. Jupe, as a child, starred in a Nineties sitcom called Gordy’s Home, which was swiftly cancelled after a horrific tragedy. He now relives those “six minutes and 13 seconds” of terror for a steady stream of curious visitors to his in-home museum, enthusiastically describing the subsequent Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning the incident. What an honour to have the worst day of your life turned into a punchline, right?
The Haywoods, meanwhile, have taken over their late father’s stunt horse business. Em starts every film shoot with the reminder that they, in fact, are the direct descendants of the unnamed and forgotten Black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion – the first series of photographic cards strung together to create a moving image. The precursor to all cinema. “Since the moment pictures could move, we got skin in the game,” Em says. And yet, the Haywoods are never relieved of the burden of having to prove themselves. As with Jupe. As with people of colour everywhere just trying to carve out their path in life. They have no choice but to constantly commodify themselves. Those frustrations drive both Kaluuya and Palmer’s work here. Kaluuya is a true one-of-a-kind talent, who still turns out an intensely magnetic performance with a character explicitly written to be sullen and uncharismatic. Palmer gives us the kind of capable horror heroine that’s impossible not to root for.
It doesn’t quite feel accurate to say that Nope’s sci-fi premise is indebted to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Jaws. Or to Hitchcock’s thrills. Or to classic B-movie mayhem. Rather, Peele’s innate understanding of cinematic history, which may have come from his years of lampooning movie tropes on the sketch show Key & Peele, only provides the foundations. Nope is his own creation. His own universe. Even a direct reference to Akira’s famous bike-slide shot can’t shatter the illusion that what we’re watching is wholly, thrillingly original. There’s always been an unshowy confidence in how Peele’s films move, from the bourbon-y smoothness of his camerawork, to the symbolic potency of ordinary objects. Get Out has its porcelain teacup. Us has scissors. Nope has a tennis shoe inexplicably balanced on its heel, and wacky waving inflatable men with rictus grins plastered on their faces.
There are other images, too, that I dare not spoil but which are so elegantly composed that my mind, without question, quietly added them to the great cinematic canon of horror imagery. Nope is a film that, on top of everything, celebrates the skill of great craftspeople – not only on screen, with the Haywoods, but with the breathless beauty of cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s work (the film was shot for Imax), and a soundscape, overseen by Johnnie Burn, that draws equal power from silence as it does chaos. You could, certainly, make the argument that Nope is the most straightforward of Peele’s films so far. He’s traded the claustrophobic, labyrinthine quality of Get Out and Us for open skies and pure spectacle. But the genius of his work is that, in the end, none of that really makes any difference. He still gets the same results. Peele, really, is the magician disguised as a filmmaker. Nope is the sleight of hand so slick you’ll never question how the trick was pulled off.
‘Nope’ is in cinemas from 12 August
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