Nope is what you say when heroics are required but you’ve decided on an impulse that absolutely no way are you going to do what’s required. Maidens to be saved, beasts to be slain or dim passageways to be entered, whatever it is, the answer is no.
Nope is also the return to form for Jordan Peele, the actor turned director whose conceptually brillant Get Out – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner done as a horror movie – was followed up by the less conceptually innovative but nonetheless very tidy Us.
Nope is Jaws done as a sci-fi, a tale of a big something lurking somewhere out “there” in the sky somewhere and the plucky and motley gang who assemble to take it on.
The gang consists of OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who run a horses-for-movies ranch, Angel, the tech guy who installs an array of CCTV cameras at their ranch after strange things start appearing in the sky, and, quite a long way down the road, a tough old stager called Antlers, who does for Nope what Robert Shaw did for Jaws.
Who gets eaten? That would be telling, and in any case Peele is determined to spin a convincing, touching story around these guys, so maybe we won’t notice that it’s Jaws at all, or if we do we won’t care.
It works. Actually, it all works, from the very first to last shot, so much so that the very fact that there are people out there on Twitter debating the merits of this film is a head scratcher.
Kaluuya and Palmer make a great double act, banging ricocheting dialogue off each other as the siblings who are making a go of it all on their own after their father suddenly dies, in an opening sequence that sets up tension nicely. We have no idea what’s behind the death of Haywood Sr (Keith David), who is taken out by a hail of weird stuff (keys, coins) raining down on him from the sky. Peele keeps this intriguing “what?”, “who?” going long after most directors would have relented.
The other two are played by Brandon Perea, as the shopping-mall nerd recruited as tech wizard and Michael Wincott as crazy-name-crazy-guy Antlers Holst, an “impossible shot” documentary maker Peele lightly makes fun of – “the light, the light” he keeps moaning as he handcranks his trusty old camera – possibly a dig in the ribs of Hoyte van Hoytema, Peele’s DP and surely the hottest in the business right now. Since breaking through with Let the Right One In, he’s shot Spectre, Ad Astra and become Christopher Nolan’s go-to guy on films like Tenet.
Early on, Peele also sets in motion a really bizarre secondary story – about a chimpanzee that goes on the rampage in a TV studio and kills everyone (no spoiler, it’s the first thing this movie tells us) – which only really explains itself some way down the line, and even then not entirely.
Is the big ugly thing in the sky a metaphor for racism? Might be. The fact that OJ’s name is OJ gets an early raised eyebrow, and a short lesson in the history of cinematography from Emerald to a roomful of film-makers informs us that it was a black jockey sitting on the horse when the first piece of movie footage was shot. Also, just the fact of black people owning a ranch…? I’m perhaps making more of this than Peele does. He’s definitely making a point, but he’s doing it very delicately.
Like Jaws, Peele has his grand set pieces, when the tension can be cut with a knife, leading to sudden awfulness awash with blood and blood-curdling screaming, and he has explicitly said that he decided to make Nope all about getting bums back on cinema seats with something truly spectacular.
Job done. Nope is a big Yup.
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