Last month, Jordan Peele had fans on Twitter cheering when he responded to someone claiming Peele was “the best horror director of all time” by writing simply, “Sir, please put the phone down I beg you.” Peele later clarified that he appreciated the support but, “I will just not tolerate any John Carpenter slander!!!” The exchange immediately conjured uncomfortable (but hilarious) comparisons to the infamous Obama line from Get Out, with several people dragging the OP for overcompensating by lavishing praise that even the filmmaker himself acknowledged he doesn’t deserve (yet). Which brings us to Nope, the third movie from Peele as writer-director and the latest proof – since we’re ignoring that dodgy Twilight Zone reboot – that he’s one of the most exciting, and unique, voices working in horror today. Better than Carpenter? That remains to be seen.
Nope continues Peele’s penchant for utilizing fantastical frameworks to take aim at societal ills, particularly those affecting people of color. Our protagonists are returning star Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ – the name is not insignificant, with another character doing a double take early on, asking him to reiterate, “Your name is OJ!?” – and Keke Palmer’s Emerald, a brother-sister duo struggling to make a living as Hollywood horse trainers following the mysterious death of patriarch Otis Snr (the great Keith David). OJ and Emerald share a believably testy sibling relationship, frequently sniping at each other, but they’re clearly ride-or-dies. One day, OJ has an encounter with what he believes is a UFO and together, he and Emerald hatch a plan to catch the sucker on film so they can finally be rich and famous, as the family clearly deserves given their demonstrable but unacknowledged history in the industry.
Also in the mix is a former child star played by Steven Yeun, who goes by nickname Jupe and runs a low-rent, western-themed amusement park nearby. Jupe had a traumatic on-set experience with a murderous primate co-star, who went on a bloody rampage, the aftermath of which opens Nope without further explanation. Throughout the movie, Peele flashes back to this incident to sow the seeds of discomfort about what the siblings – alongside tech bro Angel (Brandon Perea) and brooding cinematographer Antlers (Michael Wincott) – are attempting to do by tussling with a potentially dangerous alien invader, laying the groundwork for how we, as a society, are so willing to monetize our toughest moments for a baying public. Although Jupe was clearly altered by his horrifying experience, he continues to profit off his child star past, unable to move on and even trotting out his three kids to perform for visitors, in a nakedly desperate attempt to get them all discovered.
As usual, Peele has a lot on his mind. Nope is his biggest, brashest, and most ambitious project yet and it’s to Peele’s immense credit that the movie is as enormously successful, both in scale and scope, as it is. This is also Peele’s best-looking film, thanks to legendary cinematographer, and regular Christopher Nolan collaborator, Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot on film using large format 65mm IMAX cameras. Peele’s previous outings were shot on digital, and he clearly felt the need to expand his scope here, to wonderful effect. How the sky is framed in each scene, looking imposing yet gorgeous, is increasingly clever and discomfiting. Nope is overflowing with nightmare imagery, though Peele fakes us out several times before getting to the good stuff, which gives us a false sense of security that’s brutally demolished once it starts quite literally raining blood. The sound design, meanwhile, is impeccable – loud and core-shaking, so we can feel the tension in our pores.
Naturally, the VFX are also astounding, even if it remains to be seen whether they’ll age as well as something like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a clear touch-point whose practical sets still impress to this day. Without giving too much away, Nope plays almost like a creature feature, with characters sucked up into the sky rather than down into the depths. The looming UFO looks like a giant, scary mushroom, but if that description makes it sound in any way goofy, well, let it be known that despite its many genuinely funny moments, Nope doesn’t mess around when it comes to scares. Despite being jaw-dropping visually and sonically, this is also Peele’s most terrifying movie yet. Even the monkey attack, which is glimpsed only in the aftermath and off-screen, through the eyes of a child, is nail-bitingly tense. Peele has an innate understanding that what’s barely shown is often scarier than what’s explicitly and graphically presented onscreen, because our minds will always fill in the blanks with something worse than what our eyes can see. He trusts that we’ll understand what’s happened purely by the bloodshed on show and doesn’t pull away from it for an excruciating stretch.
This is still a Jordan Peele joint, though, so there’s plenty of light amid the darkness. Osgood Perkins shows up as a kind of walking horror reference for nerds, and there are several snarky nods to the likes of Ancient Aliens and the fact certain people are obsessed with watching spectacle, regardless of how horrific it is. Nope is a ruthless indictment of hustle culture, with Wincott – nobody delivers portents of doom like him – sharing a piece of wisdom that will chill creatives to the core. “This dream you’re chasing, where you end up at the top of the mountain?” he informs Emerald, “It’s the one you never wake up from.” The decision to refer to the alien invaders as “The Viewers” is on the nose but also note-perfect, as is the sale of cute alien plushies, which you can also purchase IRL too, naturally. There’s an awful lot going on here, and it’s remarkable Peele manages to keep everything in check without any element feeling like an afterthought, or without belaboring the point.
From the ethics of working with animals – there’s even a sly mention of the doomed Siegfried and Roy – to the consistent, and blatant, erasure of POC in wider pop culture, the writer-director has lots to contend with and it’s hugely satisfying watching him tie it all together so neatly. It helps that the performances are peerless, with Kaluuya and Palmer creating a killer double act we never knew we wanted. He’s the laconic, brooding worker bee determined to honor his father’s legacy while he’s still mourning the loss, while Palmer is the loquacious hustler trying to make a quick buck any way she can, proffering her services in directing and crafty alike. I could honestly listen to her recite the phone-book, and Peele wisely lets Palmer riff rather than trying to rein her in, so when Emerald finally shuts up at the end, the gravity of the situation hits that much harder. Her character is also casually queer, which is always nice to see. Yeun, meanwhile, is effortlessly charming yet also suitably haunted. He somehow makes an all-red, bedazzled Nudie cowboy suit look sexy, too (truly, though, Palmer is dressed cooler and sexier in this movie than maybe anybody ever – the costumes are a whole different conversation).
There’s so much detail in Nope that a single watch simply isn’t enough to catch everything, which is likely by design – Peele die-hards will notice that there antlers have been included in all three of his movies, for instance. The violence of attention is a key concern here, likewise the idea that our biggest threats could be hiding in plain sight, but it’s worth noting that Nope also functions as a thrilling summer blockbuster in its own right too. Nail-bitingly tense and relentlessly brutal, it shows further development for Peele as a filmmaker, particularly when watched back-to-back with Get Out and Us, which are both, still, hugely impressive. But Nope is next level. At the risk of being hyperbolic, Nope could genuinely be this generation’s Jaws. It’ll make you scared to look at the sky, which is no small feat. Absolutely astounding.
WICKED RATING: 9/10
Director(s): Jordan Peele
Writer(s): Jordan Peele
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Keith David
Release date: July 22, 2022
Run Time: 130 minutes