Leave it to Jordan Peele to turn a fun twist on a summer saucer story/creature feature into a Major Motion Picture Event.
“Nope” is Peele’s “Signs,” turning his camera away from the scalding racial satire of “Get Out” and the obscurant, self-serious messaging of “Us” and pointing it at everyone in our “get mine” fame-whoring culture, especially the exploit-everything ethos of Hollywood where he makes his living.
Damn it’s fun, a popcorn movie with smarts, sentiment and unconventional performances, plot turns and “logic” that wrong-foots the viewer time and again.
Haywood’s Hollywood Horses is a ranch in a remote, mountainous, treeless and oft-filmed valley in Southern California (Santa Clarita and environs). A stunt-horse rental operation for the film industry, it’s run by a Black family that claims descent from that “first movie star,” the Black jockey filmed in Eadweard Muybridge’s 1881 movies-inventing snippet of a horse and its jockey in motion.
Patriarch Otis (Keith David) is a master trainer long past retirement age. But his introverted son, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) doesn’t seem ready to step into his shoes. And manic chatterbox daughter Emerald (Keke Palmer) is never around.
One day, metal rains from the sky and Dad winds up with a nickel punched into his skull. It kills him. Otis Jr. or “OJ” doesn’t really mourn. He hasn’t the time. How can he keep this ranch going?
A commercial shoot that goes terribly wrong underscores this. Otis needs the outgoing, showbiz striver Emerald to interact with and charm the crew, and she’s irresponsibly late, infuriatingly self-promoting and distracted, so there’s an accident.
Nothing for it but to start selling off horses until they can get back in the industry’s good graces. The owner of the latest incarnation of a nearby small-time theme park (Steven Yuen of “Minari”) is a buyer. Emerald tags along for the sale and we hear Ricky “Jupe” Park’s claim to fame as he shows them, and us his tiny personal career museum.
He used to be a child star, but on one show co-starring a chimpanzee, the ape went nuts and blood was spilled. Actors died, Jupe was traumatized and Hollywood changed its rules for working with chimps. At least OJ gets this. That’s one thing the slow-to-get-it trainer OJ understands — animal behavior.
But selling one more horse won’t save Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. For that, the extraordinary thing that killed their dad — noise and lights and movement and whatever-else-it-is-in-the-sky that made it rain metal objects — has to repeat itself. They’ve got to get “the money shot,” “undeniable” proof of of flying saucers on video.
That’s how they meet tech nerd/conspiracy buff Angel (Brandon Perea giving us a dopey/hyper Dave Franco riff) at the nearby consumer electronics/CCTV warehouse store.
“Maybe you’re in a UFO ‘hot spot!'” Angel enthuses. “‘Ancient Aliens,’ History Channel, WATCH that sh–!“”
That’s why Emerald wants that grizzled director of photography (Michael Wincott) from that failed commercial shoot’s help as well.
OJ — yes, people wince at the sound of his name — keeps his head down as he maintains his routine and can’t quite think ahead as he ponders the nature of the “bad miracle” that has befallen them. Emerald’s eyes are on the prize — intellectual and photographic property, “Oprah” TV fame, the works. And Angel? He’s hellbent on horning in on whatever they have planned.
Peele’s films and TV (the “Twilight Zone” reboot, “Lovecraft Country”) all have a flicker of folklore about them. In “Nope,” it’s Hollywood and show business myths and UFO or “UAP” lore that he taps into, serving up “facts” and events that resemble real history, or at least the “Ancient Aliens” version. Some of these are presented in flashbacks or related in mesmerizing, sober and seriously-detailed anecdotes. That TV show debacle? “SNL’s” take on it was “killer!”
Horror movies exist in their own world, and Peele plays around with “rules” in this one that are basically brain droppings of sci-fi author Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “Teasers” are aliens who just want to mess with us by showing up in remote places and appearing to yahoos “nobody will believe” when they claim to have seen aliens. And in Adams’ universe, there’s something called The Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, an animal “so mind-bogglingly stupid that it thinks that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.” Animal behavior, a big subtext of the plot, just might be universal.
Keke Palmer flat out brings it here, turning her brand of “What’s she on?” manic intensity to someone who reacts with awestruck terror at seeing the extraordinary, but only when it turns menacing. Palmer dazzles as Emerald shifts from frenetic eagerness to exploit “our moment” to fear to fury as the story unfolds. Perea matches her comic energy as Angel.
Kaluuya has the trickier job, playing the introvert. OJ seems on-the-spectrum slow on the uptake, even when things fall from the sky and knock his aged father out of the saddle. Kaluuya makes OJ as irritating as Emerald– forever under-reacting to threats, danger and loss. OJ’s inertia is as “off” and Emerald’s breathless, unthinking let’s GET something out of this over-eagerness.
Peele picks up a Tarantino trick in casting two iconic character actors, David and Wincott, giving them them lovely big screen curtain calls/career bumps with these two chewy roles.
Not all of it makes perfect sense, not every character’s behavior is logical or psychologically defensible. And the title has a glib one-liner Will Smith sales pitch quality that feels forced when we hear it on screen.
But “Nope” is a thoroughly entertaining ride, as strange as it is beautiful, growing even stranger and more beautiful in the later acts. And Peele, “Tenet” director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema and composer Michael Abels ensure that every scene, every frame has the look, sound and feel of an Event, a movie you won’t want to miss on the big screen because everyone will be talking about it for the rest of the summer.
Rating: R for language throughout and some violence/bloody images.
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott and Keith David
Credits: Scripted and directed by Jordan Peele. A Universal release.
Running time: 2:15