Many years ago, Jordan Peele was a comedian who made audiences laugh with his sketches on Mad TV and Key and Peele. That changed in 2017, when he released his directorial debut Get Out. Not only does he know what makes people laugh, he knows what scares them. Between directing Us and producing reboots of The Twilight Zone and Candyman, Peele has made a name for himself in the horror genre.
Like George Romero and John Carpenter, he uses horror to frighten and provide social commentary. His newest picture, Nope, is less horror and more science fiction. The threat doesn’t come from the suburbs or underground, but from outer space.
Nope is now playing in theaters.
Story: Watch the Skies
Nope follows Otis Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), a horse trainer struggling to make ends meet. His family trains horses for movies and television shows, but his father’s death causes business to dry up. Unable to make ends meet, Haywood begins selling his horses to a western show run by former child star Ricky (Steven Yeun).
Otis and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) make a terrifying discovery. A UFO lurks in the valley near the ranch, sucking up anything alive and spitting the remains out. Otis and Emerald try to get proof of the UFO’s existence, unaware Rick is profiting off its presence.
Nope is a classic alien invasion storyline with a 21st century update. Writer/director Jordan Peele channels his inner Spielberg for this flick. There is a sense of awe and mystery surrounding the UFO. There is a fractured family brought together by a supernatural event. It hits all the beats of Spielbergian filmmaking but carves it own identity. The movie is equal parts mysterious, funny, and terrifying.
The humor comes out of the situations and doesn’t feel forced upon. This may be less of a horror movie, but when Nope terrifies, it terrifies. At the core of the movie is the characters, a wild collection of ranch handlers, former child stars, and electronic salesmen.
Characters & Performances: The Ties That Bind
The film’s central characters are Otis and Emerald. Otis wants to carry on the family’s legacy but finds it harder than expected. Otis is an anchor for the film’s commentary on the entertainment industry. He struggles to keep up with a studio system that favors CG and green screen over anything physical. To Otis, the spectacle of moviemaking is lost in the digital era.
By contrast, Emerald is optimistic and flaunts the family’s legacy. She boasts how their great-great grandfather was the first actor to be recorded on film. Despite her efforts, no one cares about the family’s contributions to film. Her and Otis’ relationship is strained, but the spaceship sees them working together. They put aside their differences to get proof of the craft’s existence.
The other characters are compelling. Ricky is a former child star turned theme park owner. A freak accident on the set of a sitcom derails his career. Like the Haywood’s, he has been forgotten by the industry. He sees a second chance in the form of the UFO and pursues it. His decision to do so causes unexpected consequences.
Ricky and the Haywood’s represent two sides of the same coin. The difference is Ricky’s motivations are more malevolent than the Haywood’s. He wants to reclaim the past, no matter what it takes. Though the UFO may be the antagonist, Ricky wants to profit off its mayhem.
Special mention needs to be given the electronic salesman Angel (Brandon Perea). He seems like the annoying comic relief, but he never becomes one. His technology expertise comes in handy because the UFO knocks out all technology whenever it is near.
Cinematography & Sound: Close Encounters of the Peele Kind
Nope’s production values are excellent. The camera work is well done and knows how to show off scale. Wide shots emphasize the craft’s looming presence, while close-up shots emphasize the ship’s enormous size. The music is wonderful. It harkens back to the stylings of composers John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. The music gives Nope a sense of wonder and intrigue. Songs like Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night heighten the movie’s action when necessary.
Editing & Pacing: Less is More
Besides its story and characters, Nope’s strongest element is its pacing. It relies on the trope “less is more.” We get brief glimpses of the UFO throughout, but never a full reveal until the third act. Nope cleverly uses false alarms to set up something scary, but reveal it was a fluke. The false alarm is often used as a cheap scare; not the case with Nope.
Jordan Peele knows when to catch the audience off guard, then scare them when necessary. The scenes where the spaceship sucks up humans like a Hoover are frightening. The audio lingers on their screams while the UFO flies away. After watching Nope, don’t be surprised to find yourself checking the skies for something unordinary.