Jordan Peele’s “Nope” is a tantalizingly creepy mixed bag of a sci-fi thriller. It’s a movie that taps into our fear and awe of UFOs, and for a while it holds us in a shivery spell. It picks the audience up and carries it along, feeding off spectral hints of the otherworldly. Yet watching the movie, you can just about taste the DNA of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Nope” mirrors the trajectory of other films that have been made in the shadow of “Close Encounters,” like M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival.” Here, as in those films, the anticipation works better than the payoff.
Daniel Kaluuya, an actor so skillful he seems to overhaul his spirit with every role, plays the central character, Otis Haywood Jr., a sweet-souled but recessive and taciturn country fellow who goes by the nickname of OJ. Early on, he reunites with his feisty chatterbox sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), on the California horse ranch the two have inherited from their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David), who in one of the film’s first scenes dies during a mysterious shower of inanimate debris. For several generations, the ranch has rented out horses to the entertainment industry, with the Haywoods serving as on-set wranglers and horse whisperers. But OJ is looking to sell the business and cash in.
Before he gets the chance, he walks out of the Haywoods’ beautiful farmhouse, stepping into the bright starlit night to chase a horse that has leapt the fence of its training arena. What he sees and hears in the distance is freaky in the extreme: a crowd, lit by floodlights, that seems to have assembled like some outer-space cult. Before long, the signs grow weirder: a cloud that doesn’t move (and hasn’t for weeks). Wind that funnels down into a small tornado. And, finally, a dark svelte object that glides through the air like nothing of this earth. The film’s title plays, amusingly, off that most casual of contempo buzz phrases (nope!), and how it perfectly expresses our incredulity in the face of the otherworldly.
Of all the fanciful phenomena that rational people claim not to believe in (ghosts, demons, monsters, the theory that Joe Biden stole the election), UFOs hold a special place. Simply put, there’s a lot of evidence for them. I don’t mean the kind of evidence cited by the folks who think that Ed and Lorraine Warren, of the “Conjuring” films, are paranormal documentarians. I’m talking about the mountains of filmed footage of UFOs, a lot of which is fake but not all of it. Of course, just because a flying object is unidentified doesn’t mean that it came from outer space. Yet the best UFO footage, which is available by the clipload on YouTube, exerts an uncanniness that can’t be explained away. You look at caught-on-the-fly images of gliding spacecraft, or lights dancing in the sky, and think, “Wow, what is that? What if?” Those thoughts have only been encouraged by recent reports leaked by the U.S. government that acknowledge just how many flying objects there are that even military experts can’t identify, some zipping through the air with a technology no one recognizes.
“Nope” has a seductive mood of unease that makes the film, for a while, feel like something new: the first UFO thriller of the cellphone-ready, I-saw-it-online, how-can-you-not-believe-your-own-eyes? era. This is Peele’s third feature, after the landmark racial-paranoia nightmare “Get Out” and the ambitious but muddled doppelgänger fantasy “Us,” and for a while he draws on his skill at leading us down detours that become hypnotic lost highways.
In a way, the whole setup is a bait-and-switch, as Peele lures us into the quirky lives of OJ and Emerald, taking note of the fact that their business, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, has deep roots in racial pride. It seems that the Black jockey who appeared for a few seconds in one of history’s earliest film clips was the great-great-grandfather of Otis Sr. (That’s part of their spiel to potential clients.) Kaluuya, so sly, communicating mostly through his sharp gaze, and Palmer, whose fast-break aggro style acquires more heart as the movie goes on, make the Haywoods adult siblings we feel invested in, and the film introduces a couple of other key characters: Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who now runs a Wild West theme park called Jupiter’s Claim (that’s where the space-cult show was), and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a techie salesman at Fry’s Electronics who helps the Haywoods set up a surveillance system to record the alien spaceship that appears to have settled in over their property.
It’s a flying saucer that resembles a giant undulating sand dollar, and if you had to use one word to describe it that word would be “hungry.” OJ and Emerald decide to photograph it; if they can land the perfect shot and sell it to the right media source (they have Oprah in mind), it could make them rich. But how do you catch a phantom spaceship on film? You call the jaded analog cinematographer Antlers Holst, played by the veteran croaky-voiced hipster actor Michael Wincott.
As they launch the plan, “Nope” itself starts flying off in different directions. It’s part of the film’s design — and, in a way, its racial consciousness — that OJ and Emerald are too mistrustful of mainstream white society to get any authorities involved. So we’re spared the sort of meddlesome-U.S.-government boilerplate plot that weighed down a movie like “Arrival.” Yet “Nope” doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of happenings that spill out in an impressionistic and arbitrary way. Logic often takes a back seat, and that has the unfortunate effect of lessening our involvement.
The spaceship, for instance, will suck you into its membrane hole if you look right at it…and sometimes if you don’t. The particulars of the Haywoods’ strategy to film the thing are never fully sketched in. When Emerald dots the property with inflatable tube men, it makes for a grabby image, but the point of these super-fake decoys is barely established. What’s more, the most disturbing scene in the movie — a flashback to Ricky’s ’90s cable sitcom, which turned into an impromptu horror set when the chimp who played the lovable Gordy went on a bloody rampage — turns out to have nothing to do with…anything. When the spaceship finally unfurls its freak flag, it looks like a pirate galleon made out of a giant ripped bedsheet, which is a little spooky and a little innocuous. “Nope,” like “Signs” and “Arrival,” will probably be a major hit, and it confirms the mojo of the Jordan Peele brand. But it also confirms that making movies with too much chaos and sprawl is threatening to become part of that brand.
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