Jordan Peele’s ‘Nope’ Ventures Into Grand Realms of Terror and Mystery

We have an addiction to spectacle in America combined with a fascination for the unknown. One reason conspiracy theories appeal so much to a swathe of the population is because grandiose answers can be found in them for confusing, unsettling developments. But do we ever stop to ponder what reality would be like if they actually turned out to be true? Jordan Peele’s “Nope” is one of the strangest potential blockbusters in many years. This is also its strength. It combines some of our national obsessions into a thriller about facing extreme possibilities head-on. On one level it’s a UFO mystery, like a modern cousin of a 1950s flying saucer movie. Peele also wants to comment on the nature of illusion and entertainment, including their underbellies. Behind every glossy Hollywood image there are sadder stories. By the same token, if aliens really arrived it might be more terrifying than exciting.

“Nope” deserves to be experienced without its secrets being exposed, but we can start with its main character, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), a professional horse wrangler. After a strange accident kills their father, OJ and sibling Emerald (Keke Palmer), run the business, Haywood Hollywood Horses, which includes renting out horses to production companies for film shoots. Their clientele includes Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor who now runs Jupiter’s Claim, a western theme park with a theme centered on UFOs. OJ is himself convinced there is something in the sky of this desert terrain and soon enough, it does appear one night while Emerald plays her music at top volume. Not only is there an entity hiding amongst the clouds, it brings with it a very hostile attitude. Now OJ and Emerald make it their mission to document definitive proof of the ship’s existence in order to warn the world. To help them, they recruit local tech salesman Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and veteran documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). As they get closer to chronicling proof of this otherworldly visitor, its very nature begins to reveal itself as something quite horrifying.

With his masterful debut “Get Out,” Peele announced himself as a socially conscious director who could explore provocative topics about race through a surreal lens. His follow-up, 2019’s “Us,” was a more violent exercise in horror to express allegories about a divided country. In both films Peele also displayed a love for the classic tradition of B-movies as idea vehicles, like Sam Fuller’s “White Dog.” More than any other director, Peele has elevated to a high art a genre defined by grindhouse and shows like “The Twilight Zone” (Peele hosts and produces the CBS revival of the classic series). “Nope” is the movie that proves Peele can expand beyond his original starting point and try new, larger ideas while retaining his particular voice. Filmed in stunning widescreen on IMAX cameras, “Nope” has the visual scope of a Western but used for a plot almost worthy of Ed Wood. Both of these tones then meet in what can possibly be called the Peeleverse, where the strange combines with sheer terror. When the UFO at the center of the story emerges, it’s both bizarre and rather demented. Strange screams can be heard when it swoops out of the cloud that functions as its disguise. Maybe OJ and the gang should run, but can they? Never does Peele explain precisely where the vessel comes from. But remember that all those tabloid news shows about UFOs never bother to make a guess either. The appeal is in the fear of something alien. 

In how it deals with the unexplained, “Nope” has a spirit in common with films like Amazon’s great “The Vast of Night,” where stark realism can turn dreamlike. This is more of a movie to experience than over analyze. Set pieces such as the ship hovering over OJ and Emerald’s home and emitting a bloody shower are staged to stick in the memory. Yet Peele has not become completely shallow. In a form more muddled than his best films but still effective, “Nope” is about our drive towards the spectacular. A consumer society wants to be impressed all the time but never dares look behind the curtain. Ricky Park’s own story is almost a complete detour in the narrative. He was once a child actor in a popular sitcom which came to a screeching halt after a horrific accident involving a chimp on set. Now he runs Jupiter’s Claim as a haunted man, still inviting to his performance a former co-star who survived the incident but was horribly disfigured. OJ and Emerald, along with Angel, who looks like a reject from “Final Destination,” and Antlers Host, played like a know-it-all grumpy filmmaker by Michael Wincott, yearn to capture the local UFO on film. When the ship emerges it’s quite the puzzling site, like a predatory version of the saucers from Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!” We as an audience may not get every thread Peele is attempting to connect, but he makes it all so wildly entertaining, and visually gorgeous with cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema, who works regularly with Christopher Nolan.

“Nope” is a gamble by a filmmaker willing to take advantage of his prestige to indulge purely in his oddest fantasies. After winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for “Get Out,” still one of the best popcorn dissections of race and class in America, Peele could have easily gone to work for Marvel. Instead, he has made an epic hybrid thriller set in the California desert, winking at Steven Spielberg, “The X-Files” and even itself (Peele reportedly named it “Nope” because he wanted to imagine the audience scared and uttering the word). By the last act it even becomes a quirky tribute to the very nature of cinema. Emerald likes to introduce herself to clients with a revelatory speech about how the first moving picture, made in 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge, depicted a Black man riding a horse. The final, thrilling moments of “Nope” are about the excitement of attempting to film something great, no matter the cost. OJ, who is played by Daniel Kaluuya with the guarded poise of a great Western star, will ride his horse and lure out the craft in a sequence that can be ranked with anything by J.J. Abrams or early M. Night Shyamalan, whose “Signs” is another movie we can reference here. Yet it all culminates with the flash of a camera. “Nope” may be archaic and weird, puzzling and almost hallucinatory. This is also part of its allure. Jordan Peele comprehends how images are at their most potent when we can’t shake them off.

Nope” releases July 22 in theaters nationwide.