Producers: Jordan Peele and Ian Cooper Director: Jordan Peele Screenplay: Jordan Peele Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Brandon Perea, Keith David, Wren Schmidt, Jacob Kim, Donna Mills, Barbie Ferreira, Devon Graye, Eddie Jemison, Oz Perkins, Terry Notary, Sophia Coto, Andrew Patrick Ralston and Jennifer Lafleur Distributor: Universal
Curious—and rather distressing—parallels are beginning to emerge between the cinematic trajectories of Jordan Peele and M. Night Shyamalan. Each began his writing-directing career (if you don’t count the latter’s two early, largely overlooked features “Praying With Anger” and “Wide Awake”) with a genre piece that won praise, and success, by doing the unexpected (“The Sixth Sense” and “Get Out”). Both followed up with bigger efforts that focused on doubles, either identical or contrasting (“Unbreakable” and “Us”), neither completely satisfying. And then they turned to sci-fi about alien invasion, Shyamalan with the overrated “Signs” and now Peele with “Nope,” which is similarly disappointing. Let’s hope Peele can break the pattern, since Shyamalan’s next movie was “The Village,” which really initiated his precipitous decline.
What stands out in “Nope” is the visual design, a specialty of Peele’s. The images are not simply immaculately choreographed by the director, production designer Ruth De Jong and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, but striking in their almost liquid beauty, even if they often comes across as pretentiously artsy or kind of dotty. There’s a sequence, for example, involving a motorcycle streaking down a dirt road surrounded by fields filled with the inflatable tube figures familiar from their use as advertising gimmicks at car dealerships and tax offices, multi-colored and flapping madly in the wind. You’re given only the vaguest notion why they’re there, but they look great, and you can speculate that this might have been the vision in Peele’s mind that led him to develop a whole movie around it, as though it was his version of the iconic crop-dusting scene in “North by Northwest,” except that it’s now a UFO (or, as the military now prefers to say, UAP) that swoops down after the rider.
That’s only one of many eye-catching moments. There are others involving that UFO darting among the clouds, but also some in which it’s absent, like a flashback to a traumatic experience in the life of one character, a kid in a TV sitcom who’s grown up to become a promoter, that’s reflective of what the extraterrestrial visitor has in mind for mankind. Lovingly filmed, and presented in the menacingly stately pace that Peele and editor Nicholas Mansour maintain through much of the film, it also coincidentally allows a shout-out to the name of Peele’s production company. In fact, the entire film looks great, even when the narrative doesn’t hang together especially well.
As to that plot, it’s pretty simple. OJ Haywood (laconic, stoic Daniel Kaluuya) has taken over the management of his family’s California horse ranch after the odd death of his father Otis Sr. (Keith David), killed by a shower of mysterious debris that falls from the sky onto their property. The family business involves training the animals for appearances in films and other forms of entertainment, and when the old man dies, OJ’s sister Emerald, or Em (Keke Palmer, as exuberant and motor-mouthed as OJ is not) steps in to help, though her enthusiasm—and other interests—frequently bungle things.
OJ is understandably nonplussed when he spies a UFO in the sky, and he and Em decide to purchase a battery of cameras to scan the clouds in hopes of catching the object on film and making a bundle on it. That brings them into contact with Angel Torres (Brandon Perea, providing welcome comic relief in goofball mode), a recently dumped clerk at Fry’s who sells them the equipment and then becomes a technically proficient collaborator in their efforts, which lead to some frightening realizations about the object and its intentions. (Those are also indicated by an allusion made by another character to a novelty song from the 1950s that a few viewers may be old enough to remember, though the color doesn’t apply.)
Neighboring the Haywood ranch is a junky Western-themed amusement park owned by Ricky “Jupe” Torres (Steven Yeun), who as a child (played by Jacob Kim) had the previously-mentioned traumatic experience with a murderous chimp on a cable-TV show and now, heedless of the lesson it should have taught him, plans to tempt another potentially dangerous entity into action for profit—the UFO. His plan involves one of OJ’s favorite horses, as well as his gruesomely disfigured co-star from that program, which goads the rancher into action to save the animal.
But the Haywoods’ attempt to film the object has no less disastrous effect than Torres’ scheme, and after a harrowing night eluding the entity they call on the services of celebrated cameraman Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to get the shot they need. His obsessiveness leads to what’s certainly intended by Peele as yet another cinematic homage—not to Richard Dreyfuss’ similar intensity in Steven Spielberg’s “Encounters of the Third Kind,” but to a far less benign moment featuring Robert Shaw in another of that director’s smashes. (Holst is also the one who brings up that fifties song.) His appearance also leads to the culminating sequence with the inflatable tube figures, which segues into a finale at Torres’ now-desolate park, a combination of action and comedy that, with its employment of another inanimate object, might remind you a bit of “Ghostbusters.”
Despite all the jokey cinematic references, Peele tries to give “Nope” a sense of gravity by dividing it up into portentously titled chapters, a tactic that merely slows the pace further. But it’s rarely truly scary, and in fact often undercuts what tension it generates with an infusion of comedy: an early scene which appears to introduce little spacemen turns out to be a silly gag, and even the most brutal scenes of destruction at the ranchhouse are deliberately diluted by cutaways to Perea’s slacker sheepishness. The lead performances are a similar study in contrast, with Kaluuya’s somber stillness set against Parker’s hyperkinetic energy, which you’ll find either cheeky or irritating, depending on your taste. (Yeun, it should be noted, is largely wasted.) The one constant is the film’s technical virtuosity, which doesn’t however extend to Michael Abels’ generic score, though the sound design is genuinely creepy.
What we’re left with is a bag as mixed as its combination of sci-fi, horror, domestic drama and downright farce, often mixed together in jarring, disjointed ways. It also adds just a dollop of cinematic social commentary in terms of an allusion to the black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’ stop-motion “The Race Horse” from 1878, thought to be the first film ever made—used as an analogue to the Haywoods’ determination to achieve something just as historic on celluloid. Peele’s ambition and craft are obvious, but they’re not enough to make up for the jumbled plot.