Filmmaker Jordan Peele elevates a lackluster summer season with his best feature-length film
“I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” — Nahum 3:6
Several years after the Roswell, New Mexico incident, an excitable representative of the Fourth Estate warned American moviegoers to “Watch the skies … everywhere … keep looking, keep watching the skies!” in the final moments of the Howard Hawks-produced The Thing From Another World. That prophetic warning in 1951 functioned as a thinly veiled call to arms against the supposedly insidious spread of Stalin-era communism as the generational trauma of World War II receded into memory and the Cold War became a seemingly never-ending present, but it also contained elements of anti-intellectualism and anti-utilitarianism that would become the norm for 1950s science-fiction in the United States, More importantly for moviegoers at the time, The Thing From Another World celebrated the American military, converted the central characters into unironic, cheer-worthy, world-saving heroes.
Since then, countless filmmakers have turned their cameras loose on our collective fascination with “little green men,” but no American filmmaker has advanced the genre tropes, conventions, and traditions like Steven Spielberg, specifically three all-time bangers, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a personal favorite) in 1977, E.T: The Extraterrestrial five years later, and more than two decades later, War of the Worlds. Where Close Encounters and E.T. ultimately cohered around optimistic, hopeful visions of alien contact, War of the Worlds reverted to the mean established by science-fiction author H.G. Wells more than a century earlier. The aliens in Wells’s novel came here not to peacefully coexist, but to conquer and subjugate. A lifetime socialist, Wells took deliberate aim at the British Empire’s imperialist, colonialist policies. Spielberg ported over those ideas to his adaptation while adding a critique of the unjustified invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States and its Western allies in the wake of 9/11.
Individually and collectively, those films inspired or influenced Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele’s (Us, Get Out) latest film, Nope, an amalgam of science-fiction, horror, and western tropes (among others). Peele, a bold, genre-hopping synthesist by nature and temperament, turns a shaggy tale involving African-American horse wranglers, Otis “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), a bored, heartbroken tech, Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), and a former child actor, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), coasting uncomfortably on past fame and an audience’s unquenchable hunger and thirst for nostalgia, into something uniquely, unmistakably his own, as figuratively and literally spectacular as anything hitting multiplexes pre- or post-pandemic.
Part of a tradition going back more than a century, the Haywood family claims a connection to the unnamed, horse-riding jockey in a sprig of film made by Eadweard Muybridge at the dawn of cinema in 1878. Whether it’s a “real” (i.e., biological) connection or not, it makes for solid marketing collateral when OJ and Em head to a local studio, horse in tow, for a TV commercial. The introverted, taciturn OJ, however, has little of his sister’s energy or enthusiasm, all but scuttling their first gig since the untimely passing of their father, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), in Nope’s opening moments, sending them back to the ranch to rethink their approach even as creditors loom somewhere offscreen.
To make ends meet, OJ and Em sell their horses one by one to Park and his “Jupiter’s Claim,” an Old West-themed park, for their daily and weekly shows. More of a tertiary or slightly tangential figure, Park’s role in Nope as a former kid actor, trauma survivor, and proprietor moves in expected and unexpected directions. It’s Park’s preteen counterpart who the audience sees multiple times in anxiety-inducing flashbacks that border on the disturbingly surreal. Thematically, the interwoven flashbacks connect to the Haywood family business, animal wrangling, and the inherent limits in attempting to tame or domesticate wild animals for entertainment and profit.
OJ and Em see a real prospect out of their deteriorating financial condition when OJ, hanging on the front porch of their family home, spots what he thinks might be an old-school flying saucer. Metallic grey and circular in form, the UFO quietly zips across the sky, using ever-persistent clouds as cover. Explicitly recognizing the value in commoditizing, monetizing, and otherwise exploiting visual proof of an actual UFO (thanks, late-stage capitalism), OJ and Em cross paths with Angel at a local Frye’s Electronics (product placement alert), inadvertently enlisting him in their (hopefully) money- and fame-spinning cause. Eventually, a Werner Herzog-inspired cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), obsessed with capturing the “impossible shot” and nature documentaries, joins team Haywood.
To say more about Nope would be to spoil the many surprises, switchbacks, and (occasional) shocks Peele delivers with impressively metronymic regularity, but we can say Peele compliments every narrative revelation with a stunning visual image, scene, or sequence. Where Get Out, for all of its radical themes involving race, class, and the limits of contemporary liberalism, suggested a filmmaker gifted with not just narrative skills, but cinematic ones too (both confirmed in the critically divisive Us), Nope sees Peele literally elevate his filmmaking game, working with Christopher Nolan regular Hoyte van Hoytema as his cinematographer, to use every millimeter of the frame to maximal, maximum intellectual, emotional, and mental impact (insert comparisons here to Spielberg).
That extends to the core relationship between the Haywood siblings. Peele takes the time and effort to allow the audience to learn about OJ and Em’s conflicted, complicated relationship, in turn making them feel like real-life, flesh-and-blood, root-worthy human beings, before decisively moving the saucer plotline into the foreground during the second half of Nope’s running time. Their relationship grounds the second half’s increasingly loopy reveals about the nature of the saucer, what it wants, and, depending on its motives, stopping it before it does any harm, all while trying to get that elusive “Oprah shot” that will presumably change their material lives for the better.
Matched by powerhouse performances from Kaluuya as reluctant hero, Palmer in a career-making turn as his exuberantly, dangerously upbeat sister, Perea as a resourceful tech-dude, Wincott as a borderline mad genius cinematographer, and Yeun as the former child star/current entrepreneur, Nope never stumbles, never misses an emotional or action beat, delivering an experience that triples as expertly crafted entertainment, stirring family drama, and socio-cultural critique of late-stage capitalism and its discontents.
Nope opens theatrically on Friday, July 22nd.