Read between the lines of most reviews for Jordan Peele’s Nope—even the many positive ones that laud the film for its “ambition”—and you’ll detect the fatal flaw that kneecaps this movie, as it does most Hollywood tentpoles: The script is not particularly good.
Peele’s third feature takes place on a cowboy ranch where something otherworldly lurks in the sky. Is it a UFO, as hinted by the film’s marketing, or is it something else entirely? Well, you’ll have to see it to find out, but it’s closer to “Jaws in the sky” than Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Daniel Kaluuya, who earned an Oscar nomination for his turn in Peele’s Get Out (and won one for Judas and the Black Messiah), stars alongside Keke Palmer as sibling owners of said ranch, which provides trained horses for Hollywood productions. The Haywoods, Otis Jr. (aka O.J.) and Emerald, have recently lost their father (Keith David) in a freak accident. The quiet, introspective O.J. prides himself on being the decision maker of the family but relies on Emerald to be the face of the family business—even though it’s just a side gig.
In one of Peele’s more clever connections, the Haywoods are technically showbiz royalty, as they are direct descendants of the star of the very first movie, The Horse in Motion, which was made by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. Generations later, the family lives in the middle of the Agua Dulce desert, where O.J. occasionally sells horses to Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who has grown up to become the proprietor of a theme park that has lately been offering guests a, shall we say, unique experience.
Up-and-comer Brandon Perea and gravel-voiced character actor Michael Wincott round out the cast as a local techie who installs the Haywoods’ security system, and a famed filmmaker, respectively. The latter’s occupation is particularly important since the entire thrust of this movie is centered around the two leads getting photographic evidence of whatever is lurking above their ranch.
And that, right there, is the problem. When writers sit down to start a script, one of the first things they ask themselves is, “what do my characters want?” In Nope, the Haywoods want to be rich and famous (how original!), and a photo of a UFO would deliver just that. So, like M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass, Nope is ultimately a movie about evidence. But even if the Haywoods manage to find physical proof, who’s going to even believe them? After all, there are countless clips of UFO sightings available on YouTube, and while many of them are fake, the government has already conceded cases of “aerial phenomenon.” So what’s the point? It’s that the overall plot of this movie is not very good.
One of the other problems with Nope is a rather poorly connected subplot involving a trained animal that goes berserk, even though it’s much more interesting than the UFO movie it’s trapped inside. That subplot is tied to Jupe’s backstory and while it is riveting, it never really connects beyond a superficial lesson regarding the danger of monetizing spectacle, particularly when nature is involved.
Thanks to this chilling subplot and our anxiety surrounding what’s in the sky, Peele does a good job ratcheting up the suspense early on but it just seems like he had no idea where he wanted to go with this story, which simply doesn’t work. The stakes are remarkably low, and the film returns to the same repetitive trick without any real reveal, so it leaves you with more questions than answers (including why Peele made this an R-rated movie instead of PG-13). As with Us, Peele seems to be unable to focus his ideas in a single direction. I suspect he’d greatly benefit from having a co-writer who’s willing to challenge him.
Nope is especially frustrating because Peele is working with a much bigger budget this time around (just under $70 million) yet it still manages to feel like a COVID movie, as the ensemble is kept fairly small, and the action never threatens to veer into War of the Worlds territory. And while I can appreciate a more intimate alien movie, like Arrival, I believe Nope might have worked better had it been made on a much larger scale. It succeeds to the extent that it does because Peele is a gifted filmmaker with a knack for both dark humor (I laughed at “Run, O.J., run!”) and memorable imagery.
Kaluuya plays the man of few words well, as he can communicate so much with just his eyes, and yet he’s upstaged by a firecracker performance from Palmer, who shines as the boisterous Emerald. This movie is definitely going to get her more work. Still, it’s Terry Notary (he played Rocket in the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy) who may very well give the film’s best performance, though I won’t spoil the surprise behind his mo-cap work here.
As impressed as I was with the first hour of Nope, Peele quite never sticks the landing. It isn’t quite a “nope” from me, but it’s far from a “hell yeah.” It seems that the sky is, indeed, the limit.
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