Jordan Peele’s latest reimagines the blockbuster and creates something unlike anything before it
There are few writer-directors whose work comes with more anticipation today than Jordan Peele. This reputation is mostly off the strength of his directorial debut, the Academy Award-winning Get Out, which immediately established him as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary film. So when information came out about Peele’s newest film, from its enigmatic title Nope to the promise of an alien invasion theme, there was a slowly building buzz that he would step out from a more esoteric patina of ‘80s-inspired horror to gesture towards something wider and more mainstream; even the fact that he was shifting into a July release timeframe suggested that Peele would attempt to make something with a more populist aim.
In some ways, Nope meets those expectations. It is Peele’s largest film to date in terms of the size of its frame, using the Agua Dulce desert in California to create vast, John Fordian visuals. But like Get Out and the more divisive Us before it, Nope centrally explores human experiences and anxieties, tinged with an unapologetically Black perspective. But Nope challenges itself to build towards spectacle and grandeur in a way that Peele has never exhibited before as a director. It is a thrilling mixture of classic filmmaking and modern storytelling, creating something that feels like it is both in conversation with Hollywood of the past and a dream of the future. Wrap all of that in a truly, unmistakably original concept that deserves to be discovered by the viewer and not spoiled, and Peele unquestionably proves the hype he has lived with since his debut. The thrill of Nope is found in Peele blending his unique perspective and style with something that has the momentum and confidence of a crowd pleasing blockbuster.
The story of Nope is focused on OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer), a brother and sister pair who run the Haywood Hollywood Horses ranch. Once a successful source for horses in films, the Haywoods have struggled since the recent death of their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David). Facing the reality of having to sell the ranch, OJ makes a startling discovery: He believes that a UFO is hiding amongst the clouds above their ranch. With the help of the conspiracy theory-obsessed Angel (Brandon Perea), a Fry’s employee who helps the Haywoods install their camera equipment, the Haywoods believe they can save the ranch if they capture footage of alien life. The only problem is that the UFO’s very presence seems to affect electronic equipment, battery powered or not.
This simple premise is the engine that runs the film, but its magic comes in the margins. Namely, Peele has populated the film with memorable and immediately captivating characters. OJ and Emerald, buoyed by fantastic performances by Kaluuya and Palmer, form an iconic duo as captivating onscreen siblings. OJ is the quiet, contemplative older brother, carrying the burden of his family’s legacy, while Emerald is a carefree but aimless soul, looking to make her own legacy in Hollywood. But for all their tension and differences—OJ slow to respond and Emerald never knowing when to shut up—their interactions are always tinged with clear love. Their father, a difficult and distant man, paints both their childhoods, even if they reacted to them in dramatically different ways. Thus their shared commitment to capturing the alien footage unites the pair, despite a perceived distance.
Beyond the Haywoods, Nope is filled with other memorable characters. Steven Yeun plays “Jupe” Park, a former child star who runs a tourist trap, Western-themed sideshow attraction, and covers up for past trauma with a nonchalant, bubbly exterior. Perea’s Angel is an alien obsessive, butting his way into the Haywoods’s orbit because he sees a major conspiracy unfolding under his nose. And Michael Wincott grumbles through scenes as the enigmatic documentarian Antlers Holt, who the Haywoods attempt to recruit to capture footage with them. Wincott in particular puts in a memorable supporting performance, his gravelly voice giving a strange weight to his ramblings, even when he is reciting the words to 1950s novelty hits.
The most fascinating thing about Nope is its patience. Easily Peele’s longest film, it uses that extra space for moments of quiet introspection, for lingering shots and behavioral conversation. The scope of the film starts introspective and slowly expands, methodically establishing characters and pieces of plot until its thrilling finale, set against the greatest and oldest special effect in Hollywood: the massive California sky. But the interplay between the grounded performances and the beautiful visuals creates the movie magic that defines the best of blockbuster cinema.
At the center of Nope is a beating heart that is neither cynical nor overly sentimental. For a film with a lot on its mind—from the place of Black crafts people within an uncaring Hollywood system, to animal rights, to UFO conspiracies and the paranoia therein, to the very history of cinema itself—Peele always grounds it in the story of people whose pasts seem to haunt them. That is what makes the victories and defeats hit that much harder. Ultimately, Nope is a movie that is interested in how people respond to hardship and the seemingly impossible, and is a film that cheers on the impossible and the human capability to achieve it. Impossible tasks like making a blockbuster film feel, in this case, both classic and groundbreaking.
Nope will be released in theaters on July 22.