“Nope” Is a Wild but Self-Aware Mashup of Sci-Fi and Westerns
The spaceship in Jordan Peele’s film absorbs material and then spews it out, an apt metaphor for the director’s follow-up to “Get Out” and “Us.”
By Anthony Lane, July 22, 2022
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer star in Jordan Peele’s film.Illustration by Matt Williams
Achimp with blood on its hands. A man with a nickel lodged inside his brain. A horse with a key stuck in its flank. These are the unusual sights with which the new Jordan Peele movie, “Nope,” gets under way. All three details are upsetting, and none of them, as yet, can be explained. Peele just deals them out for us, with speed and confidence, as if to demonstrate that the world around us, in case we had any doubt, is way out of whack. That chimp, for instance, is not in the wild but in a TV studio—brightly lit, with signs overhead that read “Applause.” Some abomination is afoot, in the happy human zoo.
For five or ten minutes, I wondered whether the whole of the film might be like this: a collage of small specific horrors, free-floating and sharp-edged, with nothing to link them but their capacity to disturb. Wouldn’t that be cool, in a major production? Could it be that Peele, boosted by his triumphs with “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019), and primed with a chunky budget, had decided to go full Buñuel on us and slap us with one long visual poem? The answer is nope. Stories need to be told.
Much of the movie is set on a remote California ranch, where O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), following the death of their father, run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses—“the only Black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood,” as Emerald says with pride. She is a force of nature, full of likable zip, and portrayed in flourishing style by Palmer; there’s no denying, however, that Emerald can be a liability. She arrives late for an appointment, disrupts other people’s conversation with the beat of her chatter, and plays her music so loud, upstairs at the ranch, that she can’t hear her brother. He is calling her from outside, in the gathering gloom, asking her to come and see what he has seen. Failing that, he will tell her what he thinks he saw.
There’s no roundabout way of saying this, and the trailer has fed us plenty of advance information, so here goes: “Nope” is about a flying saucer. Which is frustrating news for those of us who do fancy watching a film about the only Black-owned horse-training outfit in Hollywood. (Equestrian moviegoers will be notably disappointed. So rarely do the animals at the ranch appear to be fed, watered, groomed, or exercised, let alone trained, that I worried for their welfare.) But Peele is busy dishing up the saucer—an old-school model, with a touch of the funky Frisbee, possibly descended from the spaceship that landed in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). For whatever reason, this new one is attracted to the scrubby valley where O.J. and Emerald dwell, concealing itself inside a motionless cloud or, for its next trick, scooting hither and thither through the sky. Can it be out-galloped by O.J., mounted on his trusty steed? Wait and see.
This is not the first film to mix Western tropes with science fiction. There was “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011), which did what it said on the package and no more. You could pretty much reconstruct the meeting at which the idea had been desperately, if successfully, pitched. Peele, though, has ambitions that range far beyond the mashup. It is one thing for the saucer to suck folks up into a mouthlike hole in its undercarriage; for any self-respecting space invader with abduction on its to-do list, that counts as basic good manners. But the saucer in “Nope” goes one better, expelling unwanted material all over the place—gallons of gore onto a rooftop, or indigestible scraps of chewy metal around a paddock. Hence the poor fellow, near the beginning, who, while on horseback, gets hit in the head not by an arrow but by a coin.
But something else is pricking this peculiar tale and spurring it on. It is both the right and the duty of O.J. and Emerald, in their role as ranchers, to shoot the baddie. Thus, when a man named Angel (Brandon Perea) comes to their aid, he is following a noble trail laid down by the hero of “Shane” (1953), who rode to the rescue of the Starretts, in their imperilled homestead. Just one tiny difference: Angel is a salesman at a local electronics store, and he’s here to install a couple of CCTV cameras, the plan being (a) to capture footage of the saucer doing its stuff, and then (b) to hawk the results for maximum profit. Emerald knows exactly what she needs: “The shot. The money shot. The Oprah shot.” Shooting your enemy, these days, means getting him on film.
What on Earth, and in the starry heavens beyond, is going on here? I’d have to catch the film again in order to unpick the careful stitching of its themes, but my guess, for now, is that the saucer’s real mission is to prove that the very possibility of a cowboy no longer exists—to ingest an old and exhausted American narrative and spew it back out. When O.J. is confronted by scary nocturnal intruders, in his stables, does he pull a gun on them? No, he whips out his cell phone and films them. At one telling moment, the aliens are referred to as “the Viewers,” and O.J. soon discovers how the spaceship, or whatever it is, locks onto its victims. “I don’t think it eats you if you don’t look it in the eye,” he says. Gazing is a prelude to consumption. In short, “Nope” is at once a summer blockbuster and a clarion call to grad students, urging them to open their laptops and start drafting a thesis entitled “Baudrillard, Debord, and the Peelean Commodification of the West as Spectacle.”
If you don’t believe me, check out the subplot. One day, O.J. and Emerald drop in on a friendly neighbor, known as Jupe (Steven Yeun). He dresses like a cowboy and owns Jupiter’s Claim, a low-rent theme park where families can pretend, in a faded and fleeting manner, to be in a Western. You can have your photograph taken from the depths of a well, as you crane over the lip: such fun! Hang on, though. Jupe has not just a business but a backstory. He used to be a child actor, in the nineteen-nineties, famed for being on a kids’ television show, where he starred opposite a chimp—yes, the same ape that we saw at the outset of the movie, apparently in the gruesome wake of a massacre. Oh, and Jupe also talks, at length, about a “Saturday Night Live” skit that made fun of the violent episode in question. Huh? By this stage, “Nope” is in danger of vanishing up its own saucer-hole, and I’ll be interested to learn how far a regular audience, in a multiplex, will be prepared to stay with Peele as he travels to the heart of the meta.
Not that anyone as smart as Peele (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) will be unaware of such risks. That is why he strives to connect the dots—bringing together the zones of his story with a bizarre sequence in which Jupe, hosting an outdoor event, promises a crowd of customers that the spaceship will swing by. But this is nonsense; hitherto, it wasn’t clear that he even knew about the alien presence. Infinitely more fruitful, I’m glad to report, is the final act of “Nope,” in which Peele summons all his moviemaking strengths and delivers a proper climax: thunderous, thrilling, trippy, and borderline nuts. It also finds a decent part for a horse.
The film, I suspect, will divide as many people as it conquers. Some may find it a bewildering hodgepodge; others will be wooed by its fetishistic penchant for the retro. Witness not only the spaceship but Emerald’s stereo system, too, and the hand-cranked mechanical cameras—one at the bottom of the well, another operated by a craggy cinematographer named Holst (Michael Wincott), who, at Emerald’s invitation, seeks to create an indelible record of the ranch’s mysteries. Add the astonishing nightscapes in the valley, with O.J. dwarfed by skies of bruised violet and blue-black, and you realize that to call “Nope” a horror flick is to do it a grave injustice. Like “Get Out” and “Us,” it is another resourceful meditation on fear and wonder—errant at times, yet strewn with frights and ever alert to the threat of racial hostility.
Best of all, we have Daniel Kaluuya, a one-man antidote to horror. Slouching and prowling, he requires extremely good reasons to be roused, impressed, or freaked out. As alien sagas go, “Nope” seems weirdly self-involved when set beside the clean and streamlined method that Spielberg brought to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); nonetheless, with Kaluuya’s help, Peele pays a beautifully witty tribute to the earlier film. Remember Roy (Richard Dreyfuss), pausing in his truck, after dark, while an inquisitive spacecraft hovers overhead? Well, O.J. does the same thing. Both guys lean out to see what’s happening. Roy gets flashed and scalded for his pains, and, as the encounter ends, he is left panting and shuddering in shock. O.J., on the other hand, opens the driver’s door, glances upward, and then, with unforgettable aplomb, slowly closes the door again. He contents himself with uttering a single word: “Nope.” ♦
‘Nope’ Review: Cowboys vs. Aliens
While Jordan Peele’s new sci-fi horror movie, starring Daniel Kaluuya, has loads of ideas and builds up considerable suspense and dread, it eventually crash-lands
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke PalmerPHOTO: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
By Kyle Smith
July 21, 2022 5:57 pm ETSAVEPRINTTEXT
It’s been a while since I’ve heard movie characters discuss a flying saucer, even using those very words, and filmmaker Jordan Peele has the kind of pop-culture savvy to liven up a vintage plot device in his third feature, “Nope.” Unfortunately, his latest work, a combination of horror and sci-fi, disappoints for some of the same reasons his second film, “Us,” did. Mr. Peele has loads of ideas and builds up considerable suspense and dread, but he fails to tie everything together with a resounding final act. Instead, his conclusion feels sloppy, unfocused and anticlimactic, exposing his movie to unwelcome comparisons to the lesser efforts of M. Night Shyamalan, another high-concept writer-director whose career went wobbly.
The British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whom Mr. Peele made a star five years ago in his massively successful debut film “Get Out,” returns as OJ, a shy horse wrangler who works with his father (Keith David) outside Hollywood. After a bizarre incident in which terror rains down from the sky, OJ and his flashy sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), start to notice increasingly strange doings among the clouds, which affect the horses they keep outside their home in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Slowly their story converges with that of a former child actor, Jupe (Steven Yeun), who now runs an Old West theme park nearby and once endured his own traumatic episode, involving a chimpanzee with whom he used to appear on a sitcom.
“Nope”—a word that comes up several times, but never really takes on much dramatic weight—links the atmospherics of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” with the satirical skewering of television in the Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist,” and the echoes of these and other films are very much intentional. Mr. Peele is out to create self-referential genre works backed by sly, provocative social commentary. He did so with great gusto in “Get Out,” but this time he tosses in allusions to the earliest days of filmmaking, the cultural and physical detritus of American existence, and the vapidity of media-addled psyches without saying much of anything.
Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon PereaPHOTO: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
Why bother making fun of low-rent tourist attractions and our much-noted societal addiction to spectacle, especially if the gags undercut the parts that are supposed to be thrilling? At one point Mr. Peele deflates what ought to be an exciting moment by cuing up a musical theme that harks back to corny 1960s television westerns. The elements he mocks aren’t so much low-hanging fruit as they are pre-packaged produce, ready to be dumped into the blender, which is what happens to them here.
The structure is as uneven as the satire. Running almost as long as “The Shining,” “Nope” hopes to earn admittance beside it to the small group of films that deliver a prestigious variety of scariness instead of cheap shocks. But it moves so deliberately—nothing particularly exciting happens until more than 45 minutes have gone by—that it feels self-indulgent. And when the characters ought to be gearing up to outsmart the aliens, they instead expend all of their energy on how to go about filming them, thinking they might make a video clip splashy enough to be noticed by Oprah Winfrey. Exploring a theme of obsession with moving images, Mr. Peele expends far too much screen time on such excitement-draining scenes as a trip to a superstore to buy surveillance equipment, the efforts of an electronics installer (Brandon Perea) to make it all work properly, and the craftsmanship of a cantankerous Hollywood cinematographer (Michael Wincott). It’s as if Will Smith and Co. spent “Independence Day” worrying about how to make a documentary about the invaders instead of how to overcome them, then stumbled on a daft solution as an afterthought.
Steven YeunPHOTO: UNIVERSAL STUDIOS
Having won an Oscar at the outset of his filmmaking career for writing the clever script for “Get Out,” Mr. Peele earned himself recognition as one of Hollywood’s top auteurs. That status is not doing him much good: “Nope” is a good example of how a film turns out when a lauded director working without much input from lesser mortals proves too fond of his own flourishes to trim the fat, to worry about whether his ideas cohere, or to respect the dramatic imperatives of the form in which he is working. Mr. Peele is the sole writer and director of “Nope”; a creative partner might have helped him spot and iron out his wrinkles.
You can also read these:
Keke Palmer on ‘Nope,’ Jordan Peele and the appeal of being herself
By Samantha Chery, July 22, 2022 at 6:00am
Keke Palmer doesn’t want to be “one-note.”
It makes sense: In two decades in Hollywood, she’s played everything including a spelling bee champion, a stripper, an enslaved woman and the first Black Cinderella on Broadway. In her next film, “Nope,” out Friday, she’s taking on the role of a Hollywood horse trainer confronting potentially deadly invaders. Naturally.
On-screen, Palmer has committed to rediscovering herself over and over as she continues her chameleon-like streak through the business.
Since her big break as Queen Latifah’s niece in the 2004comedy film “Barbershop 2: Back in Business,” Palmer, 28, has captivated audiences in movies, on television shows, through albums and EPs,and with live musical performances. At 20 years old, she became the youngest talk-show host in television history with the premiere of “Just Keke.”
Her likability has also made her particularly ubiquitous on the internet. A sound bite of her greeting Megan Thee Stallion at last year’s Met Gala — where Palmer was hosting red carpet coverage for Vogue—became the backdrop of a trendy TikTok melody. And the Emmy-winning actress saying “Sorry to this man” when she didn’t recognize a picture of former vice president Dick Cheney duringa 2019 lie detector test with Vanity Fairhas become a social media meme staple.
Whether on set or online, Palmer’s persona is infectious, as seen in her performance in “Nope,” which has been met with glowing reviews and gleeful anticipation.
Palmer plays the spunky and enterprising Emerald Haywood, the inquisitive sister to Daniel Kaluuya’s more silent and serious character, OJ, in the latest movie written, directed and co-produced by “Get Out” filmmaker Jordan Peele. The horror flick follows the duo as they attempt to capture evidence —and monetize on their discovery — of a mysterious flying object that has terrorized their family horse ranch. To do so, the siblings must put aside their conflicting demeanors and get help from electronics store employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) and cameraman Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).
Palmer spoke with The Washington Post about the many jobs she holds, thedetriments of living superficially and why working on her first Peele project was so refreshing.
Q: How is playing Emerald Haywood different from your other roles? Why is it important for characters like her to be portrayed in movies?
A: Emerald exists in life. I think it’s so important to show diverse Black female characters. In my life, I’m also the kind of female who wavers both on masculine and feminine energy. I pull from both ends, and I think most of us are that way in life no matter what gender we are. That’s also really important to showcase in film and television. I really love having a character that redefines what people think about women.
That also played into my balance of what strength looked like for Emerald, because she’s not just strong. She’s soft. I think that’s also important as a Black woman; I don’t want to be one-note and be strapped, because that’s an annoying stereotype.
Q: You’ve also previously talked about colorism in the entertainment industry. What does an opportunity of this scale mean to you?
A: I’m not the first or the only dark-skinned woman that’s received opportunities on this scale, but I think this just continues to redefine the concepts of what beauty is, what power is, and what it means to be a leading lady and somebody that is seen as a fierce leader.
All these different levels of representation are important. People see themselves on-screen or see people that relate to them, and it continues to give positive reinforcement. It doesn’t mean every single [story] has to be that way. But I think when it comes to something like this, we have a lot less of it than I think we should and we could, so I’m just grateful to be a part of it, to be able to play in that space.
2:03Default Mono Sans Mono Serif Sans Serif Comic Fancy Small CapsDefault X-Small Small Medium Large X-Large XX-LargeDefault Outline Dark Outline Light Outline Dark Bold Outline Light Bold Shadow Dark Shadow Light Shadow Dark Bold Shadow Light BoldDefault Black Silver Gray White Maroon Red Purple Fuchsia Green Lime Olive Yellow Navy Blue Teal Aqua OrangeDefault 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%Default Black Silver Gray White Maroon Red Purple Fuchsia Green Lime Olive Yellow Navy Blue Teal Aqua OrangeDefault 100% 75% 50% 25% 0%Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea star in Jordan Peele’s alien-invasion western. (Video: Universal Pictures)
Q: You were eager to work with Jordan Peele. What drew you to his work, and what was it like on set getting to work with him?
A: He’s just so thoughtful, and he has something to say. I really connect with Peele’s films: His approach to filmmaking is very much like an artist, like somebody who’s done a painting or sculptures. It’s very open-ended, but it has a direct view. It’s specific. When you really take a deep dive into it, you’ll realize that every stroke was connected to the next. And even still, within that, it’s up for your interpretation. That is just so unique.
I can be very journalistic and observational. I think there was half of me that was really watching, learning and creating the space for mentorship to learn from the relationship that Jordan had with his producers and … actors. I felt like I was going to an art school, and I got an internship to watch Jordan Peele film a movie.
He empowers the other people on set. He has a clear vision, but he also trusts the people that he’s hired. As an actor, I just wanted to make sure that I was listening and making sure that I could tell his story, because I also really believed in what he was trying to do. It’s just a very cool and genuinely collaborative process.
Q: What do you hope people will take away from this movie?
A: There’s a lot. I would love [for people] to take away the brother and sister relationship, and just how beautiful some of these platonic relationships are in our lives: the ones that we take for granted, the ones that we don’t necessarily call on until you really, really need them; the people that really know us and see us.
I want people to see the value in that instead of the value that we put on being validated, or being popular or creating a moment for ourselves. The kind of seeing we actually want doesn’t come from popularity. It comes in genuine connections.
And then [I want people to] know how exploitation is not great. We need to be more conscious of what our intentions are as it pertains to things that are captivating us and the way we are interacting with it. What does it actually say about you? To see something — whether it be beautiful, scary, miraculous or intriguing — what does it say about you for your first step to be to exploit it?
Q: You’re multitalented and wear many hats. You’re an actress (“Lightyear”), producer (“Alice”), show host (“Password”) and competition show judge (“Legendary”). What would you say is your favorite right now?
A: I love that you said “right now,” because that’s exactly how it is. I’m really feeling personality-hosting and producing, because I’m really feeling me and myself more than portraying someone else. Even though my personality in hosting is still a performative aspect of who I am, it’s a little bit closer to who I am than playing a character or a role.
The producing aspect really allows me to be a more [toned]-down version of myself, which also is awesome. I’m in a regeneration stage of trying to rejuvenate myself and prepare for whatever that next challenging thing could possibly be on camera, and stretching my skill set in other areas. Because I know that’s only going to make me a better artist all around.