Nope Review – A Cinematic Spectacle of Horror and Imagination

I will cast abominable filth upon you,

make you vile and

make you a spectacle.

Nahum 3:6

What is a bad miracle? A miracle, much like what is said to occur in the source of the above text (the Bible), is something impossible, divine, unpredictable but all at once incredible to behold and witness. A bad miracle as a concept drives NOPE, Jordan Peele’s third film as a director, pondering its nature, attempting answers to questions few have asked.

This biblical quote opens Jordan Peele’s third film as a director, in a similar way as his previous film Us begins with a fact about tunnels under the United States. It’s a simple idea to open a film with any quote, let alone something as easily translated as words from the Bible, but context is eradicated here. It doesn’t matter where this quote comes from, it is merely a guide into everything that Nope is about, namely the creation of spectacle.

The film has a cold open through the point-of-view of someone hiding under a table, looking out onto a film set where screams of pain are faintly heard, blood covers several objects, and a chimpanzee enters, his hands and mouth covered in the same blood spread elsewhere. A shoe sits in the middle of the set, standing upright on its heel independently. The chimpanzee looks at the camera. Cut to black. None of this is discussed again until the very middle of the film, but it’s placement, a subplot storyline from the perspective of a secondary character, is of vital importance. An animal, wearing a costume from a TV show being filmed, has snapped and killed and maimed several people. Cameras and lights are pointed at the horrifying scene, but only one person is watching from a hiding place. Whatever the rest of the film becomes, Jordan Peele has put us in a terrifying place mentally.

We then have an opening credits sequence, an excellent trend connecting all the films Peele has been involved with, including Nia DaCosta’s Candyman from last year, leading into the establishment of Daniel Kaluuya’s OJ, a ranch hand and son of Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) who runs Haywood Hollywood Horses which rents out horses to film and TV productions in Los Angeles. The business prides itself on a pedrigree of fine horses tamed and trained to perfection but also, as OJ’s sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) tells us, on its connection to the history of cinema. In a reclamation of an obscure piece of black movie history, the Haywoods have buot their business on the belief that they are the descendants of the previously unknown jockey who rode a horse in front of a series of still cameras shooting 16 frames as part of Eeadweard Nuybridge’s scientific photographs Animal Locomotion, specifically “Plate 626”

The first assembly of photographs used to create a motion picture.

However, Haywood Sr. has died suddenly, struck through the skull by a quarter that fell from the sky with other random objects. OJ tries to move on, but strange occurrences around the Haywood farm beging to pull OJ and Emerald into the belief that the thing that killed their father is something extraterrestrial, hungry and evasive, a fast-moving ship of some kind hiding in the clouds and feeding on their horses. Emerald, a jack of all trades yet master of none, sees this not as a moral threat or anything bigger than an attempt to just make some quick cash. OJ is a perfect example of a straight man, someone motivated enough to just keep plugging away, going along with a good idea when he sees it, conscious enough to know when to back out. They commit to trying to capture footage of the UFO, with help from down-in-the-dumps conspiracy theorist Angel (Brandon Perea).

A wrinkle in their plan is that this thing could have been on this planet for an untold age, but is only hanging around this one random spot in Southern California because of Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen). Jupe is a charismatic celebrity mostly costing off his success as a child star in a Goonies-type Western and notoriety spurned from a sitcom called Gordy’s Home. Jupe now runs Jupiter’s Claim, a dinky little Western theme park neighbouring the Haywood ranch which is spreading word about its momentous “Star Lasso Experience”.

It is all connected, if you can believe it.

The film is, rather abruptly, separated by chapters titled “Ghost”, “Clover”, “Gordy”, “Lucky” and “Jean Jacket”, four of those being horses owned and trained by the Haywoods, but “Gordy” is not a horse. He is a chimpanzee. As it is revealed by Jupe himself, Gordy’s Home was a 90s sitcom that featured Jupe as a kid with a chimp named Gordy and the show was plagued by a sudden incident of one of the ape actors becoming scared by a bursting balloon and killing several actors and crew members, mutilating another actor, but leaving Jupe unharmed. Instead of it being a source of pain or something to cover up, Jupe has built a specialist museum featuring bloodstained props and other Gordy’s Home memorabilia, a shrine to his own childhood trauma that he has no regret or shame over. Jupe, as it is further revealed, has also come across the UFO and instead of reporting its existence, has gone one step further than the Haywoods and even his own self-exploitation. Jupe is attempting to use the Haywood horses, which OJ has been forced to sell to Jupe to pay the bills, as a feeding platter to this alien entity, creating around it a spectacle to sell theme park tickets, all because of unresolved grief from such a horrifying experience as a child. The UFO cannot be trained though like a show pony and instead consumes all the spectators at the Jupiter’s Claim park into its gaping maw.

At this point, you’ve been thrown for a massive loop, at once a little confused about beginning a movie distinctly about horse trainers with a murderous ape covered in blood, moving to introduce a UFO that looks and moves like the general conception of a flying saucer in the air, but then the ape stuff is motivation for a foolish idea to exploit what is obviously a predatory creature, all of which fails and we’re only now getting into the final movement. Nope’s pacing is deliberate because Jordan Peele knows how to align all these different characters and strange subject matter into something cohesive and terrifyingly entertaining.

This creature has been angered and is out for the hunt of its life because of Jupe’s actions. OJ, Emerald, Angel and renowed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) band together to get the UFO, now dubbed “Jean Jacket” after Haywood Sr.’s best horse, into the perfect position, capture pristine IMAX footage of it and spread the word about this creature. Their plan isn’t a lofty attempt to kill a creature the size of a baseball field, nor do they try and call in the military. These four people know the game, they know that spreading a message to the mass populace is stronger and more effective. This is a spectacle that must be seen to be believed, and these actions cannot better put the theme of the film into place. This and a discovery of OJ’s that the creature does not come for someone if they don’t look at it, much like staring into the eye of a horse will spook it. The best defence is to just look away.

Everything goes according plan, save for a random TMZ reporter showing up just to get justifiably swallowed by Jean Jacket, but they get the shot thanks to a couple of wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men, a hand cranked IMAX camera, and OJ wearing a Scorpion King jumper with reflective panels stuck on the back of the hood. But just after Jean Jacket has flown away, in an act of ill-founded artistic inspiration once the light is “just right”, Holst lures Jean Jacket back for the “impossible shot”, gets himself consumed and the destruction does not stop from there. Angel gets trapped in a tarp and barbed wire, Emerald is thrown from their family home which gets ripped apart, and OJ is forced to lure the creature away as close as possible to him, giving Emerald enough time to escape on an electric motorcycle. OJ is presumed killed, Emerald then gets back to Jupiter’s Claim and unleashes a giant balloon of a cowboy, acting as bait to Jean Jacket and gets it into the right spot to be captured by a hand-cranked polaroid camera inside a wishing well just as Jean Jacket eats the balloon and explodes in the sky. Everything ends with Emerald seeing the image of OJ sitting proud on his horse. We don’t know if he’s alive or dead, but the question is what makes everything fun.

It’s a lot of movie, but never too much. It is filled with things you’ve never seen before, things you’ve always wanted to see, and some things you never thought possible. It is a reclamation of Black history in cinema by making protagonists inspired by and echoing the image of the first Black movie star in history (an unnamed and unknown jockey), a condemnation of the exploitation of animals for commercial gain, a love letter to celluloid film as well as anime like the design of Jean Jacket’s final form echoing that of the Angels from Neon Genesis Evangelion and Emerald’s climactic action scene having her do a motorcycle slide just like Kaneda in Akira, and a celebration of the pure spectacle of entertaining cinema.

It is fascinating to see a trend of Peele’s qualities as a director, here he is echoing Jaws and Annihilation, character-driven and motivated by a classical score from Michael Abels, but distinctly about exploring an alien that is completely out of the realm of our understanding. He has a pattern now of exploring normal people being thrown into extraordinary circumstances, something that drove the relatability of Spielberg’s earliest film, but Peele is his own craftsman, inspired and thoroughly unique and it is always amazing to watch his mind work on the silver screen. Daniel Kaluuya is Jordan Peele’s De Niro, an uncompromising actor who taps into the very essence of his director’s mind and delivers an arresting and disarming performance, slow and steady and careful with his words and actions. His foil and the film’s main source of fun and heart is Keke Palmer, a cannonball of energy trying to do the best thing and willing to learn from her mistakes. Together, they give a movie sibling relationship for the ages. Tell me you aren’t delighted watching them hype each other up just before facing certain danger.

Nope has a few issues with writing, some of the dialogue feeling at times intentionally and unintentionally perplexing, a change in setting after Jean Jacket’s massive onslaught on the audience of Jupiter’s Claim feels superfluous, and the inclusion of the TMZ reporter during the final battle is a blunt way of drawing attention to the themes of exploitation and our current fascination with documenting everything. The pace of the film is deliberate, often glacial, the split of the plot into chapters can induce a feeling of disruption in the overall narrative, but everything still feels well-wrapped together by the end.

We cannot look away. No matter how terrible or disgusting or evil or sudden a bad miracle could be, we as human beings cannot help but stare in awe at things we cannot comprehend. It could be the aftermath of a car crash, found footage of earthquakes or tsunamis, or videos of people being murdered or assaulted in the streets. Jordan Peele wrote Nope in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a time when everyone was not looking up or out to the future but fixated on the present. Nothing was to be done but look in horror at the world stopping all around us. George Floyd and mass protests of racism brought a crippled planet to reality that we are all guilty of watching horrors and doing nothing. In this Jordan Peele’s third film, with technical precision and a cast of fantastic actors doing extraordinary and entertaining work, we explore what it means to have spectacle. It is beautiful and unbelievable but also terrifying and dangerous. We are a flawed and ravenous audience, guilty of staring at our doom and still wanting to take a photo. Nope is one of the year’s best, an unforgettable and entirely unique cinematic experience you cannot look away from.

Director/Writer: Jordan Peele

Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yuen, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Keith David

Christopher John

Christopher John is an emerging flim critic based in Perth and primarily writes for The Curb. He is a double-degree graduate of Edith Cowan University in Communications and Arts, and creates various flim reviews and video essays on his YouTube channel "Christopher John". Christopher has published online work with ECU's Dircksey magazine, Taste of Cinema, Pelican Magazine and Heroic Hollywood. His first love in flim is Star Wars, his newest love is Akira Kurosawa, and hopes his future love will be Tarkovsky and Studio Ghibli (he's getting to it).

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