Nope is a film about obsession and spectacle, about chasing both, and how doing so can lead to your own destruction or salvation. Tonally and visually very different from Jordan Peele’s other work, it may just have revolutionised the UFO genre, giving audiences one of the best horror films, if not one of the best films full stop, of the year.
Nope begins with a scene that doesn’t make much sense upon first viewing, a moment of supreme shock and unsettling realisation as you come to see that you’re on the set of a sitcom, where a chimp has gone wild and caused carnage. Blood covers the set, a body lies broken and torn half out of view, and the ape sits there, covered in blood, looking like it’s ready to find its next victim. And whilst you get more context for this scene later in the movie, and it becomes one of the more visceral moments when you get to go back and see it in wider detail another time, it’s actually setting up one of the major themes for the film: that humanity believes that it can tame nature, that it can put a party hat onto an animal and make it into a spectacle, but that it will ultimately end in violence and tragedy.
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This is something that is felt throughout the movie, even when we’re introduced to the Haywood family on their horse training ranch. OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), the dutiful older son, watches his father, Otis Sr (Keith David) killed in what he describes as an awful miracle, as strange screams come from the sky above, and objects rain down, one of which kills Otis Sr. Made to take over for his father, OJ lacks the charisma that his father oozed even in the few short scenes we had him in, and has to try to form a partnership with his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), who inherited her father’s silver tongue. The two of them represent the two halves of their father, his passion and knowledge for horses, and his ability to appeal to other people and present himself in a strong way.
But the siblings’ relationship feels a bit strained to begin with, with old wounds and issues festering beneath the surface as they try to find their places in this new dynamic born of tragedy. It’s when OJ sees something in the sky above the ranch one night that things change. Rather than doubting him, Emerald believes his claim that he saw a UFO fly above their home, and the two of them set out to find proof of its existence. With the help of tech store employee Angel (Brandon Perea), the siblings set out to capture the perfect moment, their Oprah shot, that will bring them both fame and fortune.
Nope likes to play with the conventions of alien horror films, taking small bits from other sources and putting its own spin onto things. There are moments in this film that will remind people of films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Signs, and whilst you can feel small pieces of these movies in Nope‘s DNA it never feels like Peele is simply ripping them off, or falling back onto lazy tropes. Every moment in the movie feels fresh and original, and whilst it does feel like a love letter to the other entries in the genre it also feels like an evolution. Nope might be the latest film to tell this kind of story, but it’s one that is going to change how other filmmakers do it going forward.
One of the things that immediately stands out about the film is that whilst the scenes of horror are incredibly well made, the smaller moments also feel important. Other horror films often feel like they’re having to take things slow in order to spread out the story, that the quiet moments are there simply to spread out the important bits. With Nope, every scene feels like it matters, every moment is adding to the whole, whether it be the depth of the characters, or speaking to the themes across the film. Even when OJ sits quietly in the barn, cleaning a saddle, and begins to think about his father, or when Emerald talks about how she felt watching her family train up the horse that was supposed to be hers without her for a film, it all means something. The fact that every single scene also looks beautiful means that even these quiet personal moments are a feast for the eyes.
But the horror elements are some of the highlights of the film, and the moments when the creature (not a ship but an actual giant animal) is on the screen makes for some incredibly tense, stunning, and honestly quite beautiful moments in the entire movie. The moment when the ranch house has blood rain down upon it, with lightning flashes illuminating the scene is horrific yet enthralling, and the finale of the movie, where we get to see Jean Jacket in all of his glory, unfurled like some beautiful flowing monster might stand out as one of the boldest, most elegant monster designs I’ve ever witnessed.
A great deal of the charm of the film also comes from the cast, and Peele has assembled a wonderful group of actors here. Kaluuya makes OJ into a quiet, reserved man who always seems worried about speaking up, who spends much of the film finding his voice. You can see the weight and the pain of his father’s death on him in multiple scenes, and there’s a huge sense of sadness to him that seems to inform many of his choices. Palmer, on the other hand, feels the exact opposite. She’s loud, outgoing, and fast talking, and seems to be trying to push herself to always present as her best; trying to get the most that she can out of life in every moment. It could be easy for a character like that to slip into annoying, or overbearing, but she never does, and her performance becomes enthralling.
Steven Yeun, the third star on the cover, has a wonderful turn as Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park, the owner of a nearby tourist attraction, and former child star who survived the ape attack shown at the start of the film. Jupe comes across as a man trying to keep hold of his former glory as best he can, even having gone so far as to build a theme park around his one hit movie. There’s a sense of desperation to him, of his need to keep chasing that fame, that high he had as a child, even though it led to one of the worst moments of his life. He’s more complex than he at first appears, and whilst his story in some ways could seem disconnected from the Haywoods, especially the scenes dedicated to his past, he’s a physical embodiment of the themes that the film is pursuing.
As well as the film, the new Blu-ray release offers a number of extras. There’s a behind the scenes making-of that’s around an hour long, that whilst interesting doesn’t feel like it nearly goes into as much detail as it could. It covers a lot of the film well, but Nope is the kind of film that feels like it could be explored in much greater detail. There are also a couple of smaller behind the scenes features that go into a bit more detail on the film’s creature, and the real-world legacy of the Haywoods, but again, they feel pretty light on the ground. There are some deleted scenes and a blooper reel to round out the extras, and whilst there’s nothing bad to be found here, a lack of more depth and details on the movie or an audio commentary leave it feeling a bit light. I wanted to dive deep into the film, and whilst the Blu-ray does give some nice extra features I can’t help but feel like the eventual special editions of the movie will need to give boat loads more in order to satisfy that itch.
Nope is a film that is way better than it should be. UFO movies aren’t serious cinema, and other than a handful of films that have tackled the subject there’s not much in the genre that feels new or original any more. Nope, however, feels like it’s taken the genre in a bold new direction. It will end up being spoken of in the same way that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is, as one of the most influential and important UFO movies ever made.