What you’re going to find in this review is my take on Jordan Peele’s third feature film “Nope.” There won’t be any comparisons to Carpenter, Spielberg, Hitchcock, or Serling, there will be a spoiler-free assessment of the “terror-in-the-skies” thriller that promises to bushwhack you when the story’s secret is revealed. As a fan of horror and science fiction, I can attest it was deftly original, aesthetically pleasing, and above all, fun!
After making his debut with “Get Out” five years ago, Peele followed it with “Us” two years later, doing scores of interviews along the way professing his love for horror and the genre’s major players. Both films are excellent thrillers ripe with social commentary highlighting the evil that men do. “Nope” is a departure for Peele who moves into supernatural territory, taking on UFOs with a twist, remarkably one that’s never been explored.
The film opens with legendary award-winning actor Keith David who has taken on extra-terrestrials plenty of times, from “The Thing” to “They Live” and “The Puppet Masters,” sitting on a horse, the owner of a Hollywood horse ranch that provides the beautiful equines to the film industry. His son, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) helps train the animals as does his livewire daughter Emerald played by Keke Palmer, the film’s MVP.
David’s appearance is whittled down to a cameo, but for those few minutes he commands the screen, leaving this writer with hope for an extended cut or additional scenes in the home release, and in a perfect world a prequel with David as OJ Sr working around the “ghosts in the sky.” He’s not the only legendary actor appearing in the film. Peele rustles up Donna Mills as an aging Hollywood starlet for a cameo and great character actor Michael Wincott, who made a name for himself in the 90s after appearing in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “The Doors,” “The Crow,” and “Strange Days,” is cast as cinematographer Antlers Holst, who joins OJ and Emerald in their quest to capture the unidentified flying object on film.
The setting is the fictional Haywood Ranch, the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood, where mysterious sightings of UFOs are commonplace. Often voices are heard in the clouds in the form of terrifying screams zooming by overhead, a nice touch by Peele that sends shivers down your spine. The horses are often spooked, running wild through the valley, while mysterious lights appear and disappear in the distance. Frequent blackouts are also a regular occurrence, giving Skinwalker Ranch a run for its money.
Emerald decides they need to capitalize on the unexplained phenomena so off to Fry’s Electronics they go to purchase surveillance equipment hoping to catch proof of the UFOs and make a fortune by selling it. A very good Brandon Perea plays the box store’s employee Angel Torres who installs the equipment at the ranch, then illegally taps into the Haywoods’ CCTV feed spotting what seems like a cloud that never moves. He alerts the brother-sister duo and becomes part of their paranormal crew (leading to some funny moments) as they attempt to capture the mysterious happenings.
Nearby, former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) runs a western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim modeled after California’s gold rush. At first, you don’t notice that alien dolls are part of the regular knickknacks available to purchase in the gift shop while the park’s logo incorporates what looks like a UFO. Ricky’s backstory, seen in flashbacks, involves the film’s most disturbing moments, as his 90s sitcom comes to a screeching halt thanks to Gordy the Chimpanzee. Peele takes the less-is-more approach creating truly horrifying moments of bloody carnage downplayed in the present day by survivor Ricky himself.
Times are tough for the Haywoods as OJ has resorted to selling the ranch’s horses to Ricky to stay afloat with the hope of eventually buying them back. Emerald once again takes charge by snagging cinematographer Antlers Holst’s phone number from a call sheet. They met on a commercial shoot, and so she cold calls him offering an opportunity of a lifetime, the “money shot.”
The special effects are first-rate and the cinematography by Oscar-nominated Hoyte van Hoytema, a frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator who shot “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk,” and “Tenet,” is striking, especially the scenes that take place at night. This is one movie you want to catch on an IMAX screen.
Michael Abels returns once again, Peele’s go-to composer, to deliver a score unlike his past collaborations with the filmmaker. It’s rich, majestic, and sweeping, recorded with a 75-piece Los Angeles orchestra that falls in line with some of Hollywood’s greatest epics. As in previous films, Peele takes a contemporary song and turns it into a dark twisted part of the score. This time it’s Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” which becomes the director’s greatest chopped and screwed achievement as the 128 BPM 80s pop song is slowed to a crawl becoming a throbbing fraction of the ominous score.
While you’ll recognize Peele’s tribute to several films, “Jaws” being the most prominent, “Nope” is unequivocally original, the concept so outlandish yet so simple, that it will forever change how you look at UFOs. That’s not to say that everyone will be on board for the film’s final act. The secret may turn out to be a bitter pill to swallow for fans of the genre. Kaluuya is Peele’s brooding De Niro, the two make a great Scorsese-like team, but it’s Palmer that steals the show. She is the film’s pulse and drives the plot forward in one of her best performances.
“Nope” isn’t perfect but I feel Peele wasn’t striving for perfection. His passion for cinema and pop culture is evident in everything he does. The film’s “secret” may take a few minutes to digest, and the final act feels slightly rushed, but Peele knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat and that he does. Like an amusement park ride, “Nope” is tense, scary, and above all, fun!
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theaters