I had to take a week off from the column three weeks ago when “Nope” opened at #1 at the domestic box office. While I’m not sorry that I gave all my attention to a wedding that weekend (shoutout to my Uncle John and new aunt Amy!), it is a shame that this movie didn’t get a review until now.
The film follows O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and Em Haywood (Keke Palmer), sibling owners of a Hollywood horse ranch. The ranch has been in the Haywood family for generations, but has been going through some tough times ever since the death of patriarch Otis (Keith David). O.J. knows how to handle the horses, but isn’t socially graceful with the Hollywood people that hire the trained animals. Em is more fluent in the ways of Hollywood, but doesn’t know the first thing about horses. The pair’s skills are supposed to compliment each other, but right now they’re just failing on both fronts. There’s an offer on the table from Jupe (Steven Yeun), a former child star with a traumatic past and a tacky amusement park, to buy the ranch, but O.J. is not ready to sign away his birthright.
As if the ranch didn’t have enough problems, something is scaring the horses at night and causing them to run off. It must be neighbor kids having a goof, right. No, it’s something from the sky. Commercial aircraft? No, that doesn’t check out. Rational explanations fall away one by one until the movie confirms that it’s a flying saucer. The Haywoods are bowled over by the sudden realization that mankind is not alone in the universe and immediately wonder how they can make money off of it.
Their plan is to obtain exclusive footage of the flying saucer, difficult because the spacecraft knocks out all electronics in the area. Tech guy Angel (Brandon Perea) tries to be of assistance, but what they really need is the calmness and professionalism of cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Antlers and the vessel quickly develop an Ahab/Moby Dick relationship, and his interest in self-preservation slowly dissipates as he becomes more reckless in trying to get the perfect shot. Additional obstacles include the saucer’s tendency to hide behind a cloud (the same cloud every time), opponents such as Jupe wanting to be the first to exploit the spectacle of the saucer, and the saucer’s ability to abduct and digest anything and anyone it wants. Luckily O.J. figures out that if the saucer can eat, it can be trained, which plays to his experience working with horses.
Kaluuya gives the best performance in the movie during a sequence where all seems lost, yet he needs to keep his cool. There’s the charismatic actor that won an Oscar for “Judas and the Black Messiah” two years ago. But the other performances aren’t particularly memorable, and by the end of the movie, I was just thinking about how selfish and stupid everybody was for not seeking more help for this deadly situation where lives had already been lost.
“Nope” is the third horror outing for writer/director Jordan Peele. It’s a solid effort, if maybe a step down from his previous two films. I daresay Peele’s career is paralleling that of another horror visionary from two decades ago. Back in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan released the monumental “Sixth Sense” to amazing box office numbers and a rare Best Picture Oscar nomination for a horror movie… just like Peele did with “Get Out” in 2017. In 2000, Shyamalan released a respectable-but-less-successful follow-up that started with the letter U in “Unbreakable”… just like Peele did with “Us” in 2019. And in 2002, Shyamalan released the alien-invasion thriller “Signs”… and “Nope” certainly has a lot in common with that movie. Peele had better be careful, Shyamalan’s fourth horror movie was “The Village,” the film where critics really started to say that the former wunderkind had lost his touch.
“Nope” is rated R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images. Its running time is 130 minutes.
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Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.