A cell phone glitches and metal falls from the sky. A phenomenon that should make one duck for cover instead sends a man on a race to save his father. Ultimately, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) cannot save his father (Keith David) from a coin plunged through his eye. In Nope, director Jordan Peele makes a metaphorical dream into a nightmare. While cinema has long pushed its heroes to look to the horizons for wealth and fortune, OJ and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) find something far more dangerous. Peele’s third feature may feel like a departure from his grounded horror, but through his characters, he finds manna from heaven may not always be welcomed.
Nope follows the Haywood siblings as they attempt to keep the family business afloat. The Haywoods have been a stalwart of the Hollywood community, dating back to one of the very first images captured on film. However, OJ’s grief turns him into a passive introvert, while Emerald hopes to score her big break into the industry without her family’s legacy. Struggling financially, the Haywood sell some of their horses to former child star “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) and his local Jupiter’s Claim attraction. When a mysterious shape floats silently through the sky, OJ and Emerald see a way to save their ranch, their legacy, and build one of their own.
Peele once again stretches his cinematic references while telling a uniquely original story. Much was made of Get Out’s ties to Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. Us paid tribute to trashier films, like CHUD or the Freddy Kreuger-led Nightmare on Elm Street. Peele takes a hard turn into the retro creature feature this time. Nope creates a familiar, but memorable vision through nods to Jaws, The Thing From Another World, Akira, The Blob, and more. However, this is not a film focused on nostalgia. Peele reminds us about the dangers of living in the past and how that road leads toward doom.
At its heart, Nope lures us in with spectacle and unique iconography. However, Peele questions the lengths we’re willing to go to capture these images. Do we let that search consume us? Can the act of filtering an image through a camera help us understand its impact or simply provide a buffer to help us process the trauma? Is that trauma worth the fame? Peele leaves these questions up in the air, providing partial answers while letting the fates of his characters guide our responses.
Peele’s ambitious Nope showcases spectacular horror setpieces, his iconically sharp wit, and a new bag of visual tricks not present in either of his sensational hits. Peele moves towards critiquing virality and juxtaposing it with legacy. These heady ideas become far more than philosophical debates for these characters. Jupe continues to earn a dime based on his survival from an on-set accident. As the audience observes the horrifying tragedy unfold, sometimes at a snail’s pace, it opens the door the Haywoods shine a light on their legacy, which itself was born from a three-second clip. Yet the subtext often speaks on a more personal note, providing an incredible balance of grandiose filmmaking with extremely personal stakes.
With Kaluuya on board, Peele puts a bulk of his emotional storytelling into the hands of a master. Kaluuya, newly decorated in Oscar gold, attempts to hide his overflowing pathos. While OJ may perform the part of the dutiful, grieving son, it is clear that he can barely hold himself together. At any minute, the dam could burst. While OJ wishes to live his life in a linear fashion, the appearance of a “bad miracle” opens the door to his way out. He can finally build a legacy of his own, no longer in the shadow of his father and the generations of Haywoods before him. Kaluuya seemingly buries the ambition, especially in contrast to his sister’s wishes. Kaluuya wonderfully balances that struggle we all face when capitalism forces us to compartmentalize our grief.
Meanwhile, Palmer leaves every ounce of herself on screen. Peele serves her up a role that allows her charisma to blow everyone off the screen, and Palmer does not waste a moment. She crafts the most humorous performance of the year but laces it with inspired vulnerability. Her sincerity allows us to see why she seeks fame. After all, her father passed her over time and time again. As she pursues a moment of celebration for herself, she pokes and prods those around her. Her lack of self-awareness opens the door for frank conversations and a deepening of her drive. Palmer and Kaluuya light up the screen together. Together, they create a brilliantly authentic portrait of a family struggling for connection.
Beyond the emotional storytelling and larger-than-life metaphors, Peele brings virtuosic ability to create tension. Peele will scare you, but in more unique ways than you ever thought possible. Yet Nope is not just scary. It is terrifying. The situations these characters find themselves in feel impossible to comprehend. The tragedy surrounding Jupe builds to one of the most uniquely upsetting moments I have ever seen on film. That says nothing of a sunset and twilight spectacle that will stay with you for years.
Peele assembled an extraordinary craft team to create these images and tension-filled moments. You can feel Hoyte Van Hoytema through the lens, consistently finding brilliance with his camera. The sound work is some of the most impressive ever captured, both as a feat of sound design and mixing. Even small touches in the production design and costumes impressively add to the storytelling. Even a red t-shirt featuring the name of The Challenger space shuttle cannot be ignored. Whether Peele provided strong direction, or the team was given immense creative power is irrelevant. Peele and his team are so in sync, they’ve created a new masterpiece of science fiction.
Alan’s Rating: 10 out of 10
Nope is a Universal Studios Film. It is Exclusively in Theaters Now.