If you’ve read anything about Nope, you know that people really don’t want to tell you much of anything about Nope. Writer-director Jordan Peele’s third film – following on from his off-kilter horror films Get Out and Us – has a lot going on, but the magic comes from the way the elements work together. There are plenty of surprises here, but they’re not always the surprises you might expect.
The film (but not the story) begins with the filming of a cheezy mid-90s sitcom with a real-life chimp as the star, only when this star throws a tantrum his co-stars suffer a lot more than bruised egos. Next stop, the Haywood ranch in southern California, where Otis Haywood (Keith David) and his son Otis Haywood Jr (or ‘OJ’) (Daniel Kaluuya) are planning the ranch’s future. A future the father won’t see, after a variety of small but deadly items of metallic garbage mysteriously fall from the sky.
While OJ lacks the charm required to make headway in Hollywood, his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) has a little too much, or maybe she’s just not interested in a dying horse ranch providing animals to a movie industry that’s happier using CGI. Someone who does need live animals is Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), owner of the nearby cheesy Wild West park Jupiter’s Claim – and, it turns out, the former child actor who co-starred with the killer chimp.
What this has to do with something very strange lurking in the skies above OJ’s ranch, and the Haywood family’s growing determination to make some serious money out of revealing it to the world, takes a little while to come clear. But that’s the point. A lot of the fun in Nope – and this is Peele’s most overtly entertaining film to date, a big action romp that also happens to feature a literal Rain of Blood – comes from figuring out how all the pieces fit together (and for the most part, they do).
Across his three films to date, Peele has mastered the art of making even the most innocuous moments seem leaden with (often ominous) meaning. His horror movies aren’t just a collection of jump scares and flashes of gore: what makes them so effective is the sense that beneath the scary surface, they seem to be saying something about something important.
Looked at from that direction, Nope might be an examination of just how far people will go to cash in on a tragedy, a look at the hidden Black role in the origin of cinema (especially Westerns, the most American of genres), the way the entertainment industry chews performers up, the perils of exploiting creatures who might fight back, or just the danger of having balloons floating around the place.
Beyond that, Nope is a smart and often surprising take on the Close Encounter genre (amongst others; Spielberg’s Jaws also has its traces here). It’s a movie that keeps the twists coming and then reveals previous scenes also contained a hidden twist. It’s full of genuinely unsettling moments and a very creepy vibe, plus a bunch of dumb-but-fun jump scares, all building to an epic final battle that has plenty going on but never becomes confusing.
Pop culture fans will have a field day spotting the references (there’s definitely a shout-out at one stage to Akira) and influences (fans of mind-melting anime Neon Genesis Evangelion will have something to discuss afterwards). Science fiction is a genre built on what came before, and Peele packs this with salutes and easter eggs while creating something fresh – especially by today’s franchise-heavy standards.
The story is big but the cast is small, with Kaluuya the lynchpin as the taciturn and often frustrated OJ. Palmer has a lot of fun with the multi-talented, occasionally painful Emerald, while Brandon Perea as the slightly geeky tech guy and Michael Wincott as a cynical big-name cinematographer giving off ‘great white hunter’ vibes round out the plucky can-do team.
It’s their struggles that ground this bizarre story. After all, while it might be creatures – whether they’re a UFO or a seemingly friendly chimp – that lure in an audience, it’s the humans around them that make us care about what happens next.
Especially if what happens next involves ripping their face off.
Director: Jordan Peele
Writer: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Steven Yeun
Distributor: Universal Pictures
M, 130 minutes
Nope is released in Australian cinemas on 11 August 2022.