I was a big fan of Jordan Peele’s Get Out but found his 2019 follow-up, Us, to be pretty disappointing. The former was a clever satire to be sure, but its greatest strength was a mastery of the fundamentals. Peele’s award-winning script was full of good characters, clever set-ups and shocking payoffs. He built an atmosphere, maintained it and used it to naturally develop the story and its scares. Us was pretty, but it got lost in its own attempted commentary. Nope is an odd mixture of the two but mostly suffers from the same issues as Us: There are great moments of horror, but the story surrounding it feels unnaturally under-developed, like he learned all the wrong lessons from the success of Get Out. Peele is certainly singular as a modern brand but has yet to follow up his initial success with anything deserving the various accolades he seems to receive among the critical community. I’d hoped Nope would live up to its premise, but instead, it’s just a muddled, if occasionally stirring, UFO programmer.
The story follows OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Em (Keke Palmer), as they try to keep their family business alive after the unexpected death of their father, Otis (Keith David). Otis was a hard man who lived a regimented life. He made their family’s name training stunt horses for Hollywood studios. The Haywoods lay claim to the lineage of the first man ever put to film, a nameless black man riding a horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s Race Horse. OJ and Em are haunted by the loss of Otis and what it means for their family and their lives. She’s off in Los Angeles doing her own thing. He’s living on the farm, slowly selling off their famous horses to Jupe (Steven Yeun) the owner of a local tourist trap, while struggling to train the wild animals as expertly as his father did.
Money is tight, so when OJ happens to spot a UFO one night, Em decides the two will make history — and plenty of money — by filming the first verifiable extraterrestrial sighting. The two are joined by Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), an over-enthusiastic employee of Fry’s Electronics, and soon the hunt is on.
Trailers would have audiences think Nope is a new take on the UFO genre that harkens back to what makes the premise so unsettling to begin with — the intrusion of the unknown into our everyday lives. Mysterious men on motorcycles showing up to film something. Strange sightings in the sky. Glowing figures in the dark outside our open windows. At its best, Peele’s film embraces the imagery and texture of the UFO story to create some memorable sequences. One in particular, set during a storm above the Haywood family home, is stunning.
Unfortunately, what the advertising doesn’t quite convey is that the 135-minute film spends a majority of its running time on fairly aimless thematic diversions. It doesn’t take much to understand what Peele’s script is trying to achieve with its B-plot about a chimpanzee that eviscerated its human costars in front of a live studio audience, but the story isn’t particularly additive to the overall plight on the Haywood ranch. Yeun, very much an “it” actor at the moment, is wasted. The film’s most enigmatic supporting character, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), is given essentially no character beyond dialogue to take advantage of the actor’s incredible voice. His role in the finale would mean more if we had any reason to care about him.
To be sure, the Jaws-like final sequence involving the Haywoods trying to wrangle the UFO is intense and interesting but purely on a superficial action spectacle level. The biggest issue with Nope is that the rest of the film is pretty light on the other elements that make blockbusters so successful. Most of the characters are just not there. There are basically no scares. Kaluuya sleepwalks through his role, creating a void where the protagonist should be and requiring Palmer to act for the two of them.
I gave it a day or so before writing my review to shake out my feelings on Nope. This all sounds pretty negative. I guess it is. I liked the UFO design well enough, and the two centerpiece sequences of terror are executed so successfully that it pains me to say the rest of the film is a dud. It is, though. If you’re just seeking out some cool UFO action, the movie delivers. Just don’t expect atmosphere or a memorable story to go along with it.