Jordan Peele’s third film is elliptical, enigmatic and often does that intense, low-key business designed to convince you that a situation presented as scary, suspenseful or significant isn’t completely ridiculous. It shares something with M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs – not least a dare that critics who’ve been disquieted by elements of his earlier films that got a pass might now bare fangs – though its structure seems to be borrowed from Jaws … while its theme and plot have quite a bit in common with Moorhead and Benson’s Something in the Dirt. In both films, odd couples – here taciturn brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and motormouth sister Em (Keke Palmer) – come across an undeniable paraphenomenon and set out to make money by catching it on video (the endgame here is selling it to Oprah) but then get drawn more and more into a world where gravity is liable to be nullified and undefinable, alien, dangerous forces lurk in the beyond. Imagine if the third act of Jaws had been about trying to get a photograph of a shark.
In an opening sequence, the siblings’ father (Keith David – hello … goodbye!) is struck down dead on his Hollywood-adjacent horse ranch by one of those Fortean oddities that happen from time to time – a rain of everyday objects (a coin, keys) from the sky, apparently from a plane no one ever finds. OJ, who reacts to someone reacting in surprise to his name as if comparison with OJ Simpson has never come up before, tries to keep the family business going, though film productions are starting to prefer CGI animals – a weird, memorable, theme-adjacent subplot about a chimp freaking out on the set of a ‘90s sit-com suggests one reason why – and he’s having to sell some stock to cowboy theme park proprietor Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), survivor of that sit-com massacre, though he’s not sure exactly what’s being done with the animals in specialised spectacles for a limited audience. Em turns up late for gigs, gives an entertaining infodump about film history by claiming to be descended from the black jockey caught on film by Edweard Muybridge, and skitters off again – only she latches on the possibility that a UFO lurks in a mysteriously stationary cloud over their spread. This brings in Angel (Brandon Perea), a tech guy who helps install surveillance equipment and diagnoses that whatever’s up there emits an EMP that shuts down electronics, and eventually Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) – think Quint – a half-mad cinematographer who has made a hand-cranked mechanical camera (just like Muybridge) and might have a better shot at getting the shot … when the thing in the clouds makes itself known.
So much of Nope works that the things that don’t are all the more irritating: it repeats a flaw of Get Out and Us by being too long, though Peele has developed since his attention-getting debut in that the comedy elements no longer seem tipped in and he continues to downplay editorial (which Get Out had tons of) in favour of subtext (which, like Us, Nope is permeated with). But this just keeps going, even when it’s story Tab A flaps loosely rather than gums properly to Tab B … when fine actors like Yeun and Wrenn Schmidt (barely a presence as Jupe’s wife) are given scenes to play rather than roles … and when sometimes the movie just goes ‘fuck it’ and does whatever it wants in defiance of plot, character, logic or even basic science. What’s in the cloud is a kind of monster as well as a UFO (though, with sly wit, it could also be what UFOs are often dismissed as – a particularly aggressive weather balloon). Peele has just pinned it on the mood board as something that needs to show up rather than worked out its life-cycle, feeding habit, weaknesses or level of fame within the cryptozoology/ufology community. I’d caution science fiction writers with a tendency to high blood pressure against seeing this film – since it just sidesteps the hard part of coming up with a fantastical idea that will read as believable. Even the most inclined-to-go-along-with-it-for-the-sake-of-the-ride viewer will be bubbling over with ‘but why did that happen’ or ‘how come they didn’t know’ or ‘what the hell is this thing’s deal’ afterwards.
Still, Nope has Kaluuya and Palmer on top form in well-written roles – I believe in these people and their relationships and I’m happy to watch them for a whole film, though they are both credibly infuriating characters who make consistently wrong calls. And Peele has a real knack for wrongnesses – reacted to with a clipped ‘nope’ (Kaluuya) or a more extended ‘nah-nah-nah-nah’ (Palmer) – and weird/poetic/banal desert imagery, like those battery-powered wavering flame people idols/attention grabbers which turn out to be key to luring the Big It into view, the sad detritus of bypassed pop culture (Jupe was a kid in a comedy western), the little raise-the-hair-on-your-arms moments that presage horrors or wonders or both. Even the glimpses of that sit-com horror are effective and sobering – while riffing on Link or Phenomena. Also turning up in tiny bits – mocap specialist Terry Notary (as the chimp), Donna Mills, Osgood Perkins (more often a director than an actor these days) and former Mr Fantastic Alex Hyde-White.