I have been a little behind the ball here lately as I have been working on a startup film club online, but I did go to the movies this past weekend to check out the latest release from the every rising star of Jordan Peele. Maybe Nope strives to fire on a lot of metaphorical cylinders at once, but that doesn’t stop it from being a well-executed and intense piece of sci-fi/horror that’s punctuated by the chemistry between its performers and its fantastic shot-making.
When their father suddenly dies, in what appeared to be a freak accident at the time, a pair of siblings try and keep the family business afloat, but there’s something much bigger going on and it has staked a claim to the skies above their California ranch.
Jordan Peele’s third film might be his best or it could just be my favorite because it works within a space that I like the most. Sci-fi/horror is often a tricky genre blend to navigate but Peele handled it adeptly, finding a good balance between the kind of spectacle that’s expected of him now, legitimate horror tactics, and a layered and entertaining script. It reminded me a lot of Jaws, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much.
I just got done watching it a second time because I wanted to see it in IMAX and, while I have heard some people describe it as slow, the pacing was right where it needed to be to build tension. The second and third trailers for the film wound up revealing much more than I expected but, in sitting down with it (again), it those moments didn’t feel ruined. That speaks volumes about the execution of those particular scenes and how effectively they are presented. It takes a lot of confidence to burn a hole card like that, but I think I know why.
On the surface, this is a western/sci-fi/horror film and it works there. Beneath the surface, it’s much more complex. At its core, the movie is really about the lengths some people will go to for perceived fame and the morbid curiosity that makes us want to watch the spectacle. In this case, you’ve got characters who have been heavily traumatized in different ways by the entertainment industry but are still driven to pursue fame. They are literally unable to walk away from the pursuit of the thing that will very likely kill them. There’s even a line of dialogue, “This dream you’re chasing…is the one you never wake up from” to drive that point home and the characters still pursue it anyway. The film also pokes at Hollywood and its history too.
This film does a lot of things well but, after each viewing, I was probably most impressed by Hoyt Van Hoytema’s cinematography. The film is beautiful on screen and very easy to watch. He highlights the scenic Southern California hills, especially under the “moonlight”, but as picturesque as the landscape cinematography was that’s not what made Van Hoytema’s work so effective. I absolutely loved the third-person camera tactic when handling the characters dealing with the UFO. It’s like looking over their shoulders as they search the sky as if the camera operator isn’t quite sure where the object is or where it’s going to appear. It’s all very intentional and incredibly effective because it puts the audience into the character’s shoes.
Daniel Kaluuya’s rugged and stoic turn as OJ (Otis Jr.) anchors the key performances. Contrary to popular belief, just because his character isn’t painted in broad strokes doesn’t mean he was “wasted” or didn’t do a great job. The quality of his performance can be seen in a subtle nervous gesture of the hand or a nuanced contemplative look.
The colorful stuff (literally and figuratively) is intentionally left for Keke Palmer who plays OJ’s sister, Em (Emerald). From the close to the fast-talking delivery to the reactionary energy, she’s everything that OJ is not and that’s an important juxtaposition. There is something of a healthy sibling rivalry, but their styles complement and strengthen one another. Palmer’s star will certainly be burning bright
This was a breakout role for Brandon Perea. He plays Angel Torres, the tech guy from Fry’s who also happens to be a massive UFC conspiracy junkie. In a weird way, he’s almost the heart of the film because his curiosity gets him involved and then he gets taken in as a surrogate little brother to Em and OJ as their experience bonds them.
Steven Yeun has shown his exceptional talent time and time again, and his character Ricky “Jupe” Park is also internalizing a lot. His trauma is very different than OJ’s and he responds to it very differently, putting up a facade. However, Yeun masterfully navigates just how thin that veil is. Had the script gone a different direction, he easily could have been the main character in this story. I selfishly wanted more from that character.
Since the film is blending genres and using humor to make it more palatable the right sound was important. The sound effects and design for the UFO stuff were super eerie and Michael Abels’ original score hit on a lot of genre staples to punctuate the changes in tone and carry the right emotions for a given scene. I mentioned how much I liked the visual aesthetic of the film, but shoutout to Art Director Samantha Englender because Otis senior low key has some great stuff on his walls.
I really loved this movie and it’s not just because there are scenes that were filmed down the street from me. I don’t go out and see movies 2x in theaters very often but it has been really nice that it’s happened on multiple occasions this year.
Recommendation: If you are a fan Jordan Peele’s work so far, you’ve gotta see it for its character dynamics and shotmaking. It also works for genre fans of westerns, horror, and sci-fi.
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