In “Nope,” writer/director Jordan Peele presents us with a big, shiny summer blockbuster – a cowboys and aliens riff built from the DNA of sci-fi spectacles of yore – and then proceeds to vivisect the very notion of a summer blockbuster before our eyes. He wants us to question the nature of image-making, and he starts at the beginning of film history, with photographer Eadweard Muybridge. In 1878, Muybridge crafted the first known example of the “moving pictures”: a two-second clip called “The Horse in Motion,” made up of sequential photographs of a jockey riding a race horse.
That the jockey on the horse – the first person featured in the movies – is Black, and unknown, is the starting point for Peele’s exploration of seeing and the seen in “Nope,” which interrogates the power of images, who gets to create them, and who gets the credit. These are complex questions, but Peele has wrapped them up in an incredibly original, and entertaining, piece of sci-fi filmmaking that is both unlike, and like, anything you’ve ever seen before.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as OJ Haywood, a taciturn horse wrangler grieving the loss of his father (Keith David) in a freak accident, while continuing to run the family business, Haywood Hollywood Horses, with his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), providing animals to movie sets. As recounted in a lively on-set safety speech by Emerald, the siblings happen to be descended from the rider who first appeared on horseback in the Muybridge clip, and through OJ and Emerald, Peele reckons with erased Black film history and seeks to reinscribe it.
However, at their Agua Dulce desert ranch, strange things are afoot. Clouds are ominous, winds threatening, roaring screeches emanate from the sky and spook the horses. They enlist Angel (Brandon Perea), a surly young employee from the local Fry’s Electronics, to install security cameras, and he takes a vested interest in the potential extraterrestrial phenomena there, examining the footage and returning to witness it himself.
The strange happenings in the desert extend to their neighbors at a Western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim. The proprietor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), has had to grapple with his own complicated legacy in the entertainment industry as a former child actor and the survivor of a gruesome chimp attack on the set of a family sitcom. The notoriety has followed him throughout his life, though the evidence of the event is all the more lucrative for the scarcity of imagery, on which he capitalizes.
Capital, and the power that comes with it, is the driving force behind the battle that unfolds in this valley, as OJ, Emerald, Angel and the legendary cinematographer they enlist, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), fight to create valuable evidence of what’s happening there.
“Nope” is Jordan Peele’s “Jaws,” a monster movie made from the rib of Steven Spielberg’s pioneering ’70s blockbuster. It also bears the imprint of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and is deep with references to ‘80s and ‘90s cult sci-fi. Film fan Peele can’t help but reference his favorites, and this is a movie about making movies, specifically the unnamed technicians and laborers who keep the movie machine running, but don’t get the glory. Peele assembles and disassembles the pieces of the blockbuster in front of us, showing us how it works, asking us to think about the many varied ways in which we engage with moving pictures, photographs, technology and spectacle, from the carnival, to security camera footage, to a virtual reality headset.
Peele invites us to question the power of who controls images while simultaneously demonstrating a masterful control over the flow of information and imagery in “Nope,” withholding the horror, parceling it out in the way only a master of suspense can, layering mood, tone and atmosphere, pushing and pulling the tempo of the edit and what we see and don’t see to build tension.
Deeply mysterious and sometimes inscrutable, “Nope” is also funny, wry and even bleak, thanks to the incredible actors who walk Peele’s tightrope. Kaluuya is quiet and intense, Palmer explosive and hilarious, a pair of perfect foils. Yeun conveys oceans of mystery below a diplomatic demeanor; is Jupe a sociopath or constantly dissociating from his own trauma? Perea delivers a breakout performance with his unique and lived-in take on Angel, and the gravel-voiced Wilcott, who memorably appeared in “Alien: Resurrection,” is the icing on the cake.
“Nope” is another genre-disrupting masterpiece from Jordan Peele, whose intellectual, curious and playful perspective has become vital, and necessary, for the horror and sci-fi genre to evolve. There’s so much more to explore in the depths of “Nope,” but for now, let us just say, “yup.”
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