With Nope, writer-director Jordan Peele delivers a bizarre, fascinating hybrid movie: On one hand, this is a burly sci-fi spectacle, with obvious echoes of Close Encounters, War of the Worlds, and Signs. Peele balances this admirable ambition with flourishes of B-movie silliness, dosing his horror film with the infectious humor of Tremors and the macabre whimsy of Paul Thomas Anderson to keep viewers on their toes. (He even sets the film out in Graboid territory, for good measure.) The result is an ungainly story, uneven and overlong, but mostly entertaining. I suspect audiences will be polarized: Some will find this too relentlessly odd and self-aware for its own good, while Peele devotees will devour every bite of it.
The plot is achingly simple for such a long runtime. In the mountainous desert of Southern California, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) runs a horse ranch for Hollywood productions. This is a family enterprise, with Otis Jr.–“O.J.”– (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald–“Em”–(Keke Palmer) working as apprentices. One day, Otis Sr. is killed by a piece of falling debris. (This instantly evokes the toad monsoon of Magnolia.). O.J. and Emerald inherit the farm, with lackluster results. Their on-set adventures don’t go smoothly. In a moment of frustration, Em wants to sell the business and focus on her acting career, but O.J. feels compelled to uphold the family legacy.
The siblings soon meet with Jupe (Steven Yuen) about selling a few of their horses. Jupe is a former child star, forever haunted by an incident on one of his sitcoms, in which a chimpanzee mauled several of the actors. (These flashbacks are the most harrowing in the entire film.) As an adult, Jupe now runs a hayseed theme park that blends ridin’ and ropin’ with a healthy heap of UFO mythology. Jupe makes an offer for the Haywood ranch, and O.J. and Emerald argue whether or not to take it. At this point, their differing attitudes about the family birthright seem destined for a collision.
Right here, Peele chucks a big ol’ curve ball into the story. It seems the Haywood’s horses are vanishing from the ranch. After a little investigating, they arrive at a jaw-dropping conclusion: A giant alien saucer is swooping from the clouds and devouring anything alive. The Haywoods outfit the farm with high-tech surveillance, hoping to catch lasting proof of the craft. This peaks the curiosity of Angel (Brandon Perea), their salesman at Fry’s Electronics. He joins their hunt and provides tech support.
That’s as much plot as I wanna give ya. Peele keeps the story lively, and its off-kilter kookiness is just part of the charm. Unless, of course, it’s not: As I left the theater, several viewers were openly complaining about Peele’s slow-burn into all-out weirdness. Nope is likely gonna be a love-or-hate endeavor.
As with Peele’s earlier films (Get Out and Us), a lot of the enjoyment lies in the little touches. The film delivers a drought-dry sense of humor, often at the most unexpected times. Some of these laughs come from Kaluuya, as he coolly “nopes” his way out of one horrific situation after another. Michael Wincott is also pretty damn funny as Antlers Holst, a pretentious cinematographer drunk on the sound of his own gravelly voice. Our heroes recruit Holst to document their close encounters, and his wry observations give the film a touch of morbid humor.
On the subject of elite cinematographers, Hoyte van Hoytema (known for his work with Christopher Nolan) serves up some world-class visuals. These include the cool grays of the desert night and the scorched landscape of day. Peele clearly wanted Nope to have Steven Spielberg’s early flair, and Hoytema obliges with a strikingly beautiful blockbuster. Likewise, elaborate special effects blend perfectly into the movie, enhancing the terror and tension without becoming a distraction.
With all that said, Nope is just a notch below Peele’s earlier films. It goes on a bit too long, and its brazen eccentricity can be a little much. I suspect this a film that will grow in the rewatching, when Peele’s multi-layered narrative can be further explored. Unfortunately, I can’t grade something for what it will be, only what it is. And for now, Nope earns a qualified yes.
R. 131 min. In theaters.