‘Spectacle’ is the word of the day in Jordan Peele’s Nope. The film feels like an event; it’s the new film by a respected, acclaimed auteur and a completely original genre film. You don’t see one of those every day anymore. We are and always have been, collectively, hungry for spectacle, but seemingly never as much as we are today, as our society is ravaged by misfortune and destruction, the result of our own actions.
Meet the Haywoods! Otis Sr. dies suddenly as debris starts falling from the sky one day, leaving his struggling horse training ranch to his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer). The siblings aren’t on the same page about business, with Emerald desperate to make it in Hollywood while the quieter OJ would just like to get on with it.
OJ is forced to sell some of their horses to former child star Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun, underused) who is building a family theme park next door. One night, OJ spots something peculiar in the night sky and the siblings become obsessed with capturing the strange phenomena on camera.
In many ways, Nope is a film of two halves. There’s the main story of the Haywoods and their search for spectacle, their obsession to immortalise something they witnessed, to validate their experience. But the meatier half of the film is what happened to Jupe as a child and how he has learned to monetise a traumatic, violent incident as an adult.
Nope is a clear, conscious move away from the scary thrills of Get Out and Us, Peele’s record-breaking first two features. Nope is clearly inspired by the works of Steven Spielberg with a sprinkling of J.J. Abrams in there for good measure, but it never succumbs to being just a pastiche or an empty homage.
This is a much funnier film than Peele’s previous efforts and largely takes place in the clear light of day. Nope is barely a horror film. Sci-fi is a much more accurate description of Nope’s style and narrative, but it’s still being marketed as a horror film, a move which can and will only hurt Peele’s film.
Don’t get me wrong, Nope is wildly original and it will never not be thrilling to see a completely original, wildly imaginative film like this on the big screen. It’s a privilege which we should not take for granted in the age of Marvel and endless streaming services. Yet, I can’t bring myself to love Nope.
Perhaps it’s how it never fuses the Haywoods and Jupe’s stories together satisfyingly. Or how, every time Peele is on the verge of making a point and saying something insightful, he pulls back. The jokes often interrupt the themes of the film, rather than aid in communicating them. Maybe that’s on purpose, but it makes for a frustrating watch.
This is still a very competent film, fascinating even. I appreciate everything Peele is trying to say and I think he’s fully in control of not only what he’s saying, but how he says it. It does not escape me that Peele often denies us the very spectacle we’re expecting and downright dying to see. I see what he’s doing and I respect it, I just don’t think it carries the film very far.
Kaluuya is, as expected, great. He nails the quiet everyman look; Kaluuya is a remarkable physical performer, able to communicate a lot with his body. Here, his shoulders are slightly slumped, his eyes drawn to the floor. Keke Palmer is the opposite as Emerald, who is bright and bubbly. She’s like a firecracker, often carrying the film when the narrative stops on its tracks.
There is much to admire in Nope. It’s visually and artistically gorgeous and a showcase of Peele’s confidence as a director. It’s a shame that confidence doesn’t necessarily translate to a satisfying narrative. While his script is clever, his characters are hollow.
The only time we glimpse into their inner lives is when Palmer’s Emerald tearfully admits feeling disappointed as their father picked OJ to work on a project with him instead of Emerald. It all amounts to a narrative relying on the very spectacle Peele purposely withholds from us. It’s rather infuriating, but perhaps that’s the point. Nevertheless, Nope is an underwhelming film that’s still a fascinating addition to Peele’s filmography and proves him to be a versatile master of the cinematic arts.
Nope is in UK cinemas August 12.