Three films into his career, writer/director Jordan Peele has established himself as a rare breed in Hollywood: a creative force with a distinctive voice, who not only has big ideas, but also has the budget to put them on the screen. But those who appreciated the cheeky brand of social commentary on race and class from Get Out and Us may be left scratching their heads after Nope, Peele’s attempt at a Western blockbuster.
As evasive as the marketing for it has been, the ads pitched the film as a Spielbergian summer spectacle, a la Jaws or Close Encounters, but naturally, Peele also has other things on his mind too. The ideas he puts forth about the voyeuristic insatiability of the entertainment industry and man’s meddling with the laws of nature feel underdeveloped and, more importantly, unrelated to the otherwise straightforward story.
Nope follows siblings, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em (Keke Palmer), who run Haywood Hollywood Horses in the secluded desert town of Agua Dulce after their father Otis (Keith David) dies in a freak accident. Their business of training and handling horses for feature films has suffered since their father’s death, forcing them to sell some of their horses to child star-turned-tourist attraction owner Jupe (Steven Yeun). But flickering lights at their ranch may signal an end to their financial woes, as the Haywoods become convinced that an unidentified flying object is in their midst. Desperate to record its existence with the hope of a big payday, they recruit tech store employee Angel (Brandon Perea) and enigmatic cinematographer Antlers (Michael Wincott) to capture its movements on film without being able to use electronics in its presence.
After opening with a one-two punch of tantalizing images in a blood-covered chimpanzee on a TV set and a passage from the Book of Nahum, Nope dutifully sets up the disparity in personalities between Otis Jr. and Em. This isn’t the first time Kaluuya has played the strong silent type, but he’s usually able to put plenty of charisma into whatever role he portrays. Whether it’s in his acting choices or Peele’s direction of his performance, he comes across as off-puttingly sedate and almost obstinate in not letting us into his headspace. Palmer fares better as the more extroverted of the two, effortlessly winning a film crew over with a charming safety speech, but there’s not much on the page beyond that opening monologue to give her character dimension and depth. Nope has no paucity of compelling story points, even if Peele doesn’t seem to know how they all fit together.
The Haywoods being descendants of a jockey seen in the first motion picture dating back to the 1880s speaks to their firsthand knowledge of the power that images can hold and explains why they would fight so hard for UFO footage. The subplot about a sitcom filming that turned deadly when a trained chimp goes rogue calls to mind how often animals are still exploited for entertainment. The presence of a TMZ reporter, whose face is never shown, in the third act seems to comment on sensationalism in the internet age. Rich subtext, to be sure, but the text itself has to be captivating on its own terms first but it simply isn’t.
Fortunately, the film is at least always captivating to the eye, courtesy of one of the best DPs in the world, Hoyte van Hoytema, behind the camera. Scale is important both in Westerns and in movies about alien craft, and Hoytema does a beautiful job organizing each frame with relative size in mind.
The music from Michael Abels heavily recalls the scores of John Williams as majestic horns and quizzical strings percolate with wonderment below the sonic surface. Even though he has a Spielberg soundalike in the music department, Peele just doesn’t have the same knack for this Spielberg-style of storytelling as he did with socially-conscious horror in his first two features. Spielberg is a master of being gracious with his audience, cluing them in to characters’s motivations without hitting us over the head with it, where Peele doesn’t seem to care whether or not we’re on the same page with our protagonists. I hope he finds a way to draw us back in his next time out.
New movies coming this weekend
Coming to theaters is DC League of Super-Pets, an animated film starring Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart following Superman’s dog Krypto and his friends as they rescue kidnapped members of Justice League.
Also playing only in theaters is Vengeance, a mystery comedy starring B.J. Novak and Boyd Holbrook about a journalist and podcaster who travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl with whom he was romantically involved.
Streaming on Hulu is Not Okay, a dark comedy starring Zoey Deutch and Dylan O’Brien about a young woman who fakes a trip to Paris to gain followers online, but a terrifying incident becomes part of her trip.