I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.
Writer and director Jordan Peele opens his third feature film, “Nope,” with that verse from the Bible’s Book of Nahum, effectively laying out the movie we are about to see. For spectacle is what “Nope” is all about, although not in the way you’d automatically assume. The conflict revolves around a UFO—UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena), if you’d like to use the correct new terminology—that appears in the Agua Dulce desert just north of Los Angeles, and with its flashy visual effects and colorful cast of characters, “Nope” is a throwback to old-school blockbusters. But the attraction Peele is most interested in exploring in his movie isn’t aliens, or the fear that we are being watched; rather, it’s the people who thrive on being watched, always needing to be in front of a camera, or behind one.
“Nope” opens with the sudden death of Otis Haywood (Keith David), the owner of a ranch in Agua Dulce. His son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and daughter Emerald (Keke Palmer) struggle to keep up the family business in his stead. That business? Haywood’s Hollywood Horses—they train horses for the movies. A monologue Emerald delivers to potential clients explains their family history: she and her brother are the great-great-great grandchildren of Alistair Haywood, the Black jockey who rode the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s ground-breaking 1878 moving picture, “The Horse in Motion.” Alistair is a made-up character, but that film and the presence of a Black jockey in it is real, and helps to emphasize the erasure of Black figures in film history that has occurred from the very beginning of the movies.
That distance is also seen in the Haywoods’ physical distance from Hollywood. Agua Dulce, with its open roads and rolling hills, is situated just on the periphery of Tinseltown, close enough for the Haywood’s to try to make some sort of dent in the industry (Emerald lets on early on that she aspires to act, or dance, or sing, or do anything entertainment-related that will put her in the spotlight), but far enough removed for them to be able to fully participate in it. The same can be said for the film’s other major player and resident of Agua Dulce, Ricky Park (Steven Yeun). Ricky owns and operates Jupiter’s Claim, a western-themed amusement park that upholds the idealized vision of the Old West that the majority of Americans share. Ricky’s main relationship to OJ is that he has been buying his horses since his father passed away. When OJ and Emerald meet with Ricky about another horse, we see that his office is akin to a museum. The memorabilia are from Ricky’s past, serving as constant reminders of his brush with fame. After starring in a popular family movie called “Kid Sheriff,” Ricky was on a short-lived television program that centered around a chimp called Gordy, a show that ended abruptly, and in tragedy. Jupiter’s Claim appears to be Ricky’s way of retaining some piece of the spotlight, some sense of control—even when it comes to the aliens, which he incorporates into a stage show. It’s noteworthy that Peele divides his movie into segments, each one named after an animal: the Haywood horses, and then Gordy the chimp, a further reminder of how hard it is for people to carve a space for themselves in the popular culture. Audiences remember the horses. They remember Gordy. They don’t remember the people.
That’s the thing that sets “Nope” apart from most extraterrestrial adventures. It isn’t that the characters express a total lack of fear of the unknown. Palmer, as Emerald, is loud and brazen, a stark contrast to her more stoic older brother, but even she reaches a point where she says she cannot stay in their house any longer, as what began as strange phenomena like clouds in the sky not moving, spooked horses running off, or complete loss of power quickly intensifies. Kaluuya, in his second collaboration with Peele after “Get Out,” exhibits more nervousness than wide-eyed fear, but there’s a weariness in his face that underlies all that too. It’s just that that fear is usurped by the desire to capture something tangible of this bizarre occurrence. Angel (Brandon Perea, providing some solid comic relief), the local tech expert who comes out to the ranch to install some surveillance equipment, doesn’t just do the job he’s hired to do and then leave. It’s established that he’s fascinated by the prospect of aliens—even if the primary source of this fascination is the History Channel’s “Ancient Aliens”—so he rigs their cameras so that he can watch them from back at the store. When he sees something weird on them, he’s unable to stay away. Emerald becomes obsessed with capturing what the characters refer to as the “impossible image,” and uses that to lure acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) out to document the encounter, bulky hand-crank film camera in hand. Even TMZ gets wind of it. Just when we think the crew is getting together a plan to drive out the aliens, we soon realize that their only goal, really, is to get proof of it (which, admittedly, lowers the stakes of the conflict somewhat). It’s notable that the one person who seems uninterested in capturing the spectacle, OJ (owner of a flip phone, uninterested in the workings of the Hollywood machine), is also the first to realize that the UFO doesn’t strike when people don’t stare directly at it. The alien, too, thrives when it is being watched.
“Nope” is fun and funny and mildly creepy, with simple but effective creature design, a stirring score by Michael Abels (who also composed the music for Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us”), and rich sound design (noise, followed by the absence of it, is used to great effect as the alien being dodges in and out of the clouds). All of the elements of the story, however, fail to come together in a very cohesive way, and rather than being the most thrilling part of the movie, the film loses steam in the climax, which becomes too repetitive and overlong. But that doesn’t mean “Nope” isn’t satisfying—quite the opposite. Peele’s films have become increasingly ambitious, from the rich but relatively straightforward “Get Out” to the denser and more confounding “Us.” “Nope” is messier than either of those films, but it also challenges audiences by feeding them something that looks familiar and proceeding to turn it on its head. It’s a tribute to film history and filmmakers. Besides the Muybridge references, for instance, there’s a poster for “Buck and the Preacher” placed noticeably in the background in the Haywood home; the 1972 western directed by and starring Sidney Poitier was revolutionary for casting Black actors as the leads in a genre that typically erased them. An early scene on a Hollywood soundstage shows the leap from Muybridge to CGI, from the beginning of movies to the current state of movies, in a matter of minutes when, after their pitch goes sour, OJ and his horse Lucky aren’t given a job, and we glimpse a phony green-screen horse being wheeled onto set in the background. It’s also about the obsession with watching and being watched, and the whole idea of “pics or it didn’t happen,” a concept that has grown in strength in recent years with social media and the internet placing anyone just one viral video away from stardom. The paranoia that is an inherent part of so many classic sci-fi stories is for once not tied directly to the aliens. For many of these characters, they always need to be “on,” and survival is secondary to capturing the perfect shot. If no one is watching them in the first place, then what’s the point?
“Nope” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 130 minutes. Rated R.