There’s a moment in every Jordan Peele movie where the mysterious evil is given a title. It’s that crucial moment early on where everything connects. For Get Out, it was when Stephen Root’s character speaks of benefiting from a racist system. For Us, it was when the doppelganger declares herself an American. But in Nope, we have a creature who cannot speak to us but is always watching. Thus, the characters declare this mysterious evil The Viewer.
Thankfully, Nope manages to be something more than just a meta-commentary on an audience thirsty for chaos. We’ve already gotten blatant satire of this in movies like Cabin in the Woods. This film manages to tap into something greater. There’s a sense of control that the camera demands, oftentimes without our consent. So what if we lose that sense of control? What if we can’t tame what was once within our grasp?
This is an aspect of life that the quiet OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) is well aware of in his career. He runs a ranch of horses used in Hollywood productions. After having lost his father, he aims to keep the ranch alive and eventually buy back all the assets he had to sell to keep things afloat. His sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) tries to help out but she does more harm than good in her desire to push her own career into his work. Her involvement makes horse gigs harder to come by.
Something bigger brings them together though. As horses go missing from the ranch, something strange appears in the skies. It looks like a UFO but they can’t be sure. The ship seems to be hungry for horses and keeps hovering around OJ’s desert ranch. Aiming for fame, Emerald suggests that they try to find a way to get footage of this mysterious flying object. With some help from a bored retail employee (Brandon Perea), they attempt to capture the ultimate proof of alien life. Of course, they’re not ready for the true horror they discover with this entity, not from our world.
Throughout the narrative is a contemplation on how trying to force nature into a box can often lead to disaster without consent. It’s a lesson that one would think the former child star Ricky (Steven Yeun) would have learned. He has witnessed an animal previously going berserk when forced to conform and be captured on film. But time passes and we often forget certain lessons, where a desire for empathy is replaced with greed for domination. That greed goes beyond the monetary, as when the craft film director Antlers (Michael Wincott) gets involved. His obsession with this level of control is one of both passion and danger, despite being hubris he seems well aware of in his quest for fame.
Compared to his previous films, Peele’s latest picture is not as fast-paced or brimming with violence. The mystery unfolds in a manner that edges you closer to the screen, eager to discover what creepy creature dwells in the skies. Even the freak accident that kills OJ’s dad has you questioning further what went down on the ranch. Once the stealthy UFO finally looms closer to the camera, it’s a truly terrifying moment. The brief scenes of chaos and violence really hit hard after so much dwelling on the desire to understand.
At the same time, Nope is also a lot of fun. It plays around beautifully with the concept of what viewers demand from horror. There’s a fairly old joke about the horror genre that if black people were the protagonist in a horror film that usually stars white people, it would be over fast as they’d take one look at a creepy situation and bail. Peele’s picture addresses this notion in a clever way. Here’s a monster that demands you play along, where the only way to defeat it is not to engage with what fuels its power. Thankfully, the greater plot isn’t just a matter of ignoring terror but more not feeding it exactly what it wants.
What a dazzling picture this is as well! Huge credit needs to be paid to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema for making these vast country landscapes look so grand. The visual effects team also does an incredible job bringing the UFO to life, making it far more than your standard flying saucer and transforming it into a surreal nightmare of overlapping materials and shapes. And, of course, you can’t forget Peele’s pitch-perfect direction that builds so well with dry humor, pop culture satire, and grotesque violence.
Nope is as much a high-concept mixture of horror, sci-fi, and westerns as it is a satisfying romp of trying to outsmart human-munching aliens. It’s certainly the best aliens-come-to-town film I’ve seen in quite some time. That type of film usually gets boring because it seems that aliens either want to chew on our flesh or touch fingers for friendship. Nope entertains the idea that maybe they want something more than just food and companionship. Maybe they want what we want on a level beyond just survival. That’s something truly terrifying to consider and another example of how Peele is one of the finest directors when it comes to the horror that is as surreal as it is crowd-pleasing.