Spaghetti Western, alien-invasion thriller, trauma allegory, ecological parable, treatise on the pernicious power of filmed entertainment over the last century-plus of American history: Jordan Peele’s Nope is all of this and yet, somehow, less. The writer-director’s third feature film, his biggest and most expensive yet by an order of magnitude, is a great churning engine of a movie that mashes up genres, images, and ideas at an industrial scale. That’s not to say that Nope feels cynical or mass-produced. On the contrary, it’s such an original and idiosyncratic expression of its creator’s vision that sometimes the movie seems not to have yet made it all the way out of his head and onto the screen.
Peele’s script tries to pack the thematic ambition of a novel (or, if I dare say this in reference to such a self-avowedly movie-obsessed movie, a season-long arc of television) into a running time of just over two hours. On the upside, that means that Nope never feels long or belabored—it moves like a house on fire—but its relative compactness also means that as this big, bold, sometimes brutal movie careens to a cinematically thrilling if narratively puzzling conclusion, some of the most important questions the script itself raises in the idea-dense first half remain unanswered. Whether this ambiguity is experienced as enriching or enraging may vary from viewer to viewer, or viewing to viewing. As someone who came out both obscurely disappointed and unable to stop thinking about it, I definitely plan to see it again.
The movie’s first hour introduces us to two small businesses, located near each other in the Southern California desert, that operate on the fringes of the entertainment industry. Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his younger sister Emerald, or Em (Keke Palmer), live on a ranch in the remote town of Agua Dulce. Their family business, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, has supplied and wrangled horses for the movie industry quite literally since the dawn of the medium. In one early scene, Em tells a crew preparing to shoot a commercial that her and OJ’s great-great-great-grandfather was the uncredited black jockey on the racehorse photographed by Eadweard Muybridge in an 1878 series of stills often called the first direct ancestor to the motion picture. As the movie opens, the Haywood siblings’ father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), dies in what seems like a freak accident. After his death, the two very different Haywood siblings—OJ guarded and taciturn, Em a chatty, weed-vaping live wire with grand entrepreneurial schemes—draw closer, both in their grief for their dad and in their fear for the future of the ranch in an era when equine talent has been supplanted by CGI.
Though the parallel is never clearly established, a digitally rendered animal character plays a key role in Nope’s other main storyline. The opening scene flashes back to 1998 as we witness the eerily quiet set of a TV network sitcom, its brightly colored costumes and cheerily lit living-room furniture smeared with human blood. A gore-soaked chimpanzee costumed in children’s clothes approaches the camera, locking gazes with the viewer, closing in on us as if to attack … and then the scene shifts to the Haywoods’ ranch in the present day. Only 20 minutes or so in do we begin to learn the significance of that startling cold open. At least one actor on the chimp-ravaged set, a child star named Ricky Park, survived and grew up to become known, after his most famous character, as Jupiter (played as an adult by Steven Yeun). He now owns and runs a small but thoroughly demented theme park not far from the Haywoods’ ranch, a tourist attraction presided over by a giant inflatable cowboy and crammed with folksy attractions, concessions, and rides. “Jupe” dresses in garish Western-style duds and projects a chipper professionalism as he emcees park events and reigns over his family-run empire. But he still carries the internal scars of that long-ago massacre: Concealed behind a wall in his office is a secret room full of memorabilia from the canceled series, some of the props still stained with the blood of his former co-stars.
[Read: How Scary Is Nope? Scarier Than Us and Get Out?]
All this world-building and we still haven’t gotten to the UFO! Back at the Haywood ranch, odd things have been happening in the wide summer sky: One cloud low on the horizon seems not to have changed shape or position for months. By night, booming noises, mysterious flashes of light, and sudden power outages are spooking both the horses and their trainers. A few close encounters of an as-yet-uncounted kind (the Spielberg reference comes not from me, but from the material itself) lead OJ and Em to suspect that the strange astronomical events they’ve been witnessing indicate the presence of an alien invader in the skies of Agua Dulce.
Almost immediately Em comes up with a plan to save the ranch by making herself and her brother the first humans to capture incontrovertible proof of alien life. In essence, the two siblings set out to become filmmakers, taking back control of the medium their ancestor helped to start so long ago. In this effort they enlist some help: Angel (Brandon Perea of The OA), a conspiratorially minded electronics store employee, installs surveillance cameras around the ranch, while the legendary documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a cryptic, reclusive figure who seems half Werner Herzog, half John Huston, gets sweet-talked by Em into devising a setup to film the ever-shrouded UFO as its nightly visits grow more invasive and more dangerous.
The second half of Nope is a steady crescendo of action, terror, and suspense, with grand-scaled and at times horrifically violent set pieces that alternate between the theme park and the ranch. The 65mm cinematography by sci-fi master Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar, Ad Astra, Tenet) captures the awe-inspiring otherness of the alien against a landscape familiar from Cinemascope Westerns of yore. Michael Abels’ score nimbly leaps from ambient horror-movie creepiness to a whistled Western-style theme straight from a Sergio Leone soundtrack. Also whirling around in Peele’s genre blender are Cold War flying-saucer pictures like The Day the Earth Stood Still, the Cary Grant-in-a-cornfield chase from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, a cleverly re-imagined pull from Spielberg’s Jaws, and at least one nod to M. Night Shyamalan’s alien-invasion fantasy Signs.
In its mix of classic-Hollywood homage with a frank sense of queasiness about the legacy the entertainment business has left us, Nope at times recalls another recent epic about the dream machine and its casualties, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. But if that movie’s critique of the film industry ended on a cathartic fantasy of redemption, Nope’s closing moments are both bleaker and more ambiguous. The siblings’ final encounter with the alien, an elaborate if somewhat confusingly laid-out plan to lure out and film the invader, has moments of fist-pumping exhilaration, but this creature feature ends on an almost King Kong-like note of sympathy for its creature.
Long on spectacle, suspense, and visual wit, Nope sometimes skimps on story and character development. Thanks to Kaluuya’s powerfully restrained and often wordless performance—his Otis Jr. is the archetype of the strong, silent cowboy filtered through what seems to be a case of clinical depression—we understand OJ’s profound connection to his horses, the land he was raised on, and his voluble little sister, but I would have welcomed a few more scenes between the siblings that didn’t involve them fleeing an extraterrestrial. Keke Palmer, a charismatic actor with keen comic timing, is never less than a delight to watch, but her character isn’t given much of an arc to explore. And Steven Yeun’s Jupe, who it’s implied has a self-destructive compulsion to revisit and repeat the formative trauma of his life, needed much more screen time to emerge as a fully rounded character, though Yeun brings every scene he’s in a melancholy gravity.
In an unexpected choice for a film this steeped in the history of movies, Nope opens on the literary device of an epigraph. Before witnessing the aftermath of the performing chimp’s massacre, we see a Bible verse in which an angry Old Testament God warns the sinning city of Nineveh that “I will make a spectacle of you.” Buried somewhere in the booming sound mix and thrilling visuals of Nope is a plaintive critique of the predominance of spectacle in the lives of 21st-century Americans, our insatiable need to record and document and watch and perform. But unlike the alien invader, which late in the movie takes on its full, freaky, magnificently imagined form, these ideas never completely emerge from the film’s rich matrix of images, references, and themes. Nope is about the drive to film the unfilmable, to capture against all odds what the hubristic auteur Antlers Holst calls “the impossible shot.” Perhaps it’s fated that a movie with ambitions that big would fall short of accomplishing all it sets out to do. But along the way Peele gives us one hell of a spectacle.