Nope (2022)

Jordan Peele | 2hr 15min

Jordan Peele’s dedication to reinventing familiar narrative conventions has seen him take inspiration from such historical horror films as Rosemary’s Baby and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even now with Nope’s staggering scale, speculative science-fiction, and monster movie conceit, new sources of influence just keep emerging. The high-concept supernatural mystery that unfolds in this rural region of California is part M. Night Shyamalan, though in drawing on the monstrous suspense of Jaws and the extra-terrestrial intrigue of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the presence of Steven Spielberg is felt even more acutely. Armed with a sharp wit and a penchant for intelligent subtext, Peele goes about examining the thread connecting humanity’s hunger for spectacle and its arrogant domination of nature in Nope, confronting us with a cosmic horror that dwarfs our tiny egos.

Daniel Kaluuya returns for his second collaboration with Peele here as horse trainer and handler OJ, paired with Keke Palmer as his much more outgoing, bubblier sister, Em. After their father, Otis Sr., is killed while out in the paddock by a coin inexplicably falling from the sky and landing in his eye, a string of strange, otherworldly occurrences begins to unfold on their humble ranch. Vanishing horses, an unmoving cloud, and peculiar, lurking creatures in the stable are initially minor concerns compared to their financial troubles, which have pushed them to strike an unfortunate deal with Jupe, a former child star turned Wild West theme park owner. Soon enough though, the presence of the UFO that lives in the sky above their ranch can no longer be ignored, and mere victory over it does not seem like enough. If one should come face to face with the supernatural, why not exploit it for all it is worth?

Making a spectacle out of the natural world is a tricky business though, and one that Peele considers carefully through his small ensemble of characters who make livings off the entertainment industry. While OJ hires out his show horses to Hollywood studios, he never treats them with anything less than utmost respect, seeking to understand their boundaries and triggers before making a profit off them. One can only ever make a deal with an animal, he believes, never fully control it, though this ethos is not shared by Jupe, whose experience as a child actor playing against chimpanzees in the 90s sitcom Gordy’s Home has left him with both uneasy trauma and false confidence.

In one flashback which displays Peele’s greatest manipulation of the camera, he quietly rolls in a long take through the sitcom’s backstage area, absorbing the tension that settles over the set in the immediate aftermath of one chimpanzee’s unexpected, violent outburst. A popped balloon is all it takes to set the animal off, and now as it beats up and chews on the flesh of its co-stars, we are stuck in the perspective of a young Jupe hiding beneath a table, watching it all unfold. While others try to calm it down, a stray shoe mysteriously balancing on its heel catches our attention – a “bad miracle” as OJ might call it, though one which in this instance is peculiar enough to draw Jupe’s eyes away from the rampaging animal. As has already been established, direct eye contact is considered a form of aggression in the animal kingdom, and this brief distraction ultimately proves to be enough to save the young boy’s life.

Whatever lesson Jupe has taken from this experience, it is not a particularly wise one, as the fact that his survival as a child was little more than pure luck goes right over his head. If trained chimpanzees and horses can make people money, he reasons, then why not take the next logical step with a flying, otherworldly monster that audiences can gawk and point at from afar? Never mind that avoiding eye contact was what saved his life last time, and would once again be the best course of action. When something truly spectacular captures our minds, the instinct to just keep watching overrides our better judgement, and the urge to put these wild, uncontrollable creatures on display for the entertainment of the masses is one that Nope’s characters indulge in to varying degrees.

And to an extent, Peele himself demonstrates a similar love and fear of spectacle in his own filmmaking, exploiting his audience’s desire to see something truly exciting with shots that at times tease us with tantalising glimpses, or alternatively deliver on large-scale set pieces, staging a battle between humans and the Lovecraftian monster that claims their land as its own. As OJ sets about recording the creature with a small crew, IMAX cameras simultaneously become props and the instruments through which Peele is shooting his film, enlisting Christopher Nolan’s regular director of photography, Hoyte van Hoytema, whose mastery of large format cinematography does wonders here. No doubt Hoytema’s previous visual accomplishments are much greater in films such as Dunkirk and Ad Astra, though for Peele as a director, Nope is easily a step up in style from both Get Out and Us, as he gradually washes out his bright desert landscapes with grey clouds that keep us edgily waiting for whatever horror is about to appear.

Nope does not exactly come close to the narrative tightness or thrilling pacing of Get Out, especially given its occasional dawdling, but Peele’s talents as a storyteller remain evident nonetheless. The choice to split the film into chapters based on the names of the animal characters doesn’t just offer up a clear structure for us to follow, but it also formally ties together their tragic fates at the hands of other creatures, understanding each of them as organisms in a food chain fighting for survival. For the humans of Nope though, survival is overrated. To capture something truly marvellous that others can look at and be astounded by – that may be more valuable than life itself.

Nope is currently playing in theatres.

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