Nope review: Space is the place in Jordan Peele's subversive sci-fi update
In the arid, IP-fatigued movie landscape of 2022, Jordan Peele feels like some kind of unicorn: an auteur filmmaker whose mere presence above the title elicits a kind of collective thrill in both audiences and critics that no mad multiverse or reanimated dinosaurs can really match. And he's essentially done it with just two films over five years, cementing his signature style — spooky, high-concept, socially astute — with a speed and clarity of purpose that most directors take half a lifetime to nail down.
Nope (in theaters July 22) arrives accordingly with no small set of expectations, and not a little bit of mystery: The 35 million-plus people who have viewed at least one of two versions of the trailer online will come in with the idea that it is perhaps a play on an old-school UFO movie, or at least something vaguely extraterrestrial. And they know that it marks a reunion with his Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, who is now, like Peele, an Oscar winner. (They've both still been under-served by the Academy, but that's a story for another time.)
It's also the first lead role of this caliber for Keke Palmer, a onetime Nickelodeon kid whose prickly, dynamic presence on the sidelines of films like 2019's Hustlers seemed to beg for a bigger closeup. Here, she gets to hold the restless center of nearly every scene she's in as Emerald Haywood, the showboating sister of Kaluuya's more cautious, introspective Otis Junior. Otis Senior (Keith David) is not long for this world, or at least this screen: He dies in the opening scene, felled by some mysterious space-junk detritus that drops from the sky one day on the family's ranch outside Los Angeles. ("What's a bad miracle, they got a word for that?" OJ asks ruefully at one point, looking like he already knows the answer.) The Haywoods hail from generations who, as Emerald brightly explains to a roomful of blank-eyed industry types, helped bring horse-training to Hollywood, earning an inaugural place for Black wranglers in movie lore.
That and five dollars won't buy them a bag of carrots, though, if they can't get their stallions to behave on a green screen. And even back at the ranch, the livestock still seem spooked. But aren't animals always the first to know when something's off? There's a man named Ricky "Jupe" Park (Minari's Steven Yeun), busy running his own hustle at a retro Western-themed amusement park down the road, who may have ideas about the strange weather hanging over the valley. Jupe was once a child star himself, until something went terribly wrong with a chimpanzee on a sitcom set more than 20 years ago; now he works a sort of rhinestone-cowboy shtick with his wife and kids, though he's always eager to revisit the old glory days if somebody asks, or even if they don't.
Revealing much more about what follows seems like an unnecessary spoiler, though it also feels fair to say that Peele has never leaned this close to early Spielberg (or if you're feeling less charitable, mid-period M. Night Shyamalan). His screenplay — threaded through with flashbacks and unhurried character moments — is for a long time a tease, both elliptical and explicit when it comes to the central mystery, though it's clear he's absorbed a lifetime of Close Encounters lore, and much darker visitations too. The casting, as always, is on point: Palmer's Emerald is loose and funny and kinetically alive, the kind of final-girl hero most scary movies only feint at creating, and Kaluuya remains one of the most fascinatingly interior actors to watch on screen. His OJ doesn't speak much and often moves even less, but there's so much going on within him that the eye never wanders; his stillness is a centrifugal force.
The wide-lens cinematography, by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Interstellar, Dunkirk), is gorgeously expansive, and Michael Abel's score clatters and shivers. The prevailing mood is a looming, sun-drenched tension (as in Ari Aster's Midsommar, daylight doesn't signal safety here). For all of the film's escalating supernatural events, though, what's less clearly drawn, and will likely prove less satisfying to a plot-hungry public, are the whys and hows of its conclusion. Peele's scripts have always felt like meta-text; this one toggles between classic genre stuff and a deliberately fragmented play on certain all-American tropes — flying saucers, sitcoms, jump-scare terror — filtered through a fresh, keenly self-aware lens. As a sci-fi fable, Nope feels both more slippery and less viscerally satisfying than the relatively straightforward horror of Get Out or even 2019's Us, but it still sticks. The truth is out there, or up there, in that curiously immovable cloud that looms like a cotton-ball anvil above the Haywood ranch; it's Peele's prerogative to build his world below it, and leave the rest. Grade: B+
Caretakers at a California horse ranch encounter a mysterious force that affects human and animal behavior.