Over the last few years, Jordan Peele has taken Hollywood by storm. That’s not a surprise; the actor-turned-director has proven himself to be one of the best comedians of his generation, and with the release of “Get Out” (2017), he established himself as one of the best writers of 21st century horror. Between “Get Out” and his sophomore film “Us” (2019), Peele has demonstrated an ability to create stylish, terrifying, and meaningful films, without delving into the melodrama or hamfistedness of many other mid-budget independent horror productions (looking at you, Ari Aster). With the release of “Nope,” an effects-driven sci-fi horror, Peele shows his ability to create memorable and creative blockbusters. But at the same time, the very spectacle Peele excels at creating often feels excessive — even coming at the expense of the film’s storytelling — resulting in an overall enjoyable, yet slightly underwhelming film.
After the mysterious death of his father, reserved horse trainer OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) is forced to reunite with his fame-seeking sister Em (Keke Palmer), in order to resuscitate their dying Hollywood horse ranch. Soon enough, strange happenings begin to plague the siblings, such as their electricity randomly going out every Friday night, a cloud that hasn’t moved in weeks, and the sounds of screaming horses echoing across Agua Dulce. It becomes clear very quickly that all these events are linked to a single source: an extraterrestrial UFO lurking above the Haywood Ranch.
Intercut with the discovery of this alien presence are the memories of the Haywoods’ neighbor, child star turned theme park tycoon Jupe Park (Steven Yeun), and the tragic end of his short-lived sit-com “Gordy’s Home” (starring the eponymous chimpanzee, Gordy). The film opens with a shot of a blood-covered chimpanzee on a sound stage, and gradually reveals a murderous ape rampage, demonstrating to the audience that Jupe has lived his entire adult life knowing the dangers of Hollywood spectacle, and in particular, the consequences of exploiting wild animals.
Yet, unlike in many other horror movies, instead of running away from the mysterious UFO, both the Haywoods and Jupe actively seek out this alien creature in the hopes of turning a profit. Whether it’s the Haywoods’ desire to capture their “Oprah shot,” a picture of the alien presence in order to save their ranch, or Jupe’s amusement park treating the UFO as if it were an animal performer at a circus, we soon see how the drive to create profitable content threatens the lives of all these characters.
It is this indictment of commodifiable art that values spectacle and profit over human and animal well-being that holds “Nope” together. By viewing Hollywood through the eyes of an animal trainer, the film uses the cruel and exploitative practice of animal actors as an introduction to the toxicity commonplace in media in general. Peele explores the self-centered nature of modern spectacle throughout the film, not only by displaying the disregard for animal safety during production, such as when OJ’s insistence that his horse needs rest is ignored, but also by exploring how we relate to each other and ourselves through the media we consume (in one morbidly comedic scene, Jupe describes Gordy’s rampage by recounting the SNL skit about it, instead of his actual lived experience). Even the siblings’ attempt to capture the UFO on film results in abuse from enigmatic cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who seems more than willing to sacrifice his life and the lives of the Haywoods in order to create his own masterpiece. The desire for fame and fortune, Peele insists, does not only risk making art into a mere commodity, but actively harms those who create and consume media.
However, that message feels contradictory to the nature of the film, given that Peele seems to revel in the spectacle that he has created in “Nope.” He isn’t wrong to do so, as his methodical attention to detail has resulted in a stylish and wonderfully shot film. In what is clearly his most “blockbuster” movie yet, Peele not only displays his directorial talent for creating suspenseful adventure scenes, but has once again displayed creativity by subverting sci-fi tropes in order to create what is probably the scariest depiction of a UFO abduction ever put to film. Yet, by the time the third act arrives and the mysteries of the UFO have been revealed, the movie grinds to a halt, replacing all the suspense and terror with an action ending that mimics “Jaws” (1975), beat for beat. The seams of the movie become apparent, with characters acting completely irrationally, the plot never unifying itself in a satisfying way, and an ending that contradicts the central theme of the movie. If this is a film lambasting the malleability and shallowness of media spectacle, why does it end on such a cliched note? The audience is presented with a movie that both repeatedly criticizes vapid media, yet expects us to cheer for a derivative ending. Despite its professed challenge to the toxicity of Hollywood, “Nope” never strays far enough from the mainstream to justify its own themes.
Although this movie is certainly lacking compared to his previous films, Peele’s filmmaking ability, the great performances of the cast, and the astonishing special effects still make this the most enjoyable movie of the summer. But by the time the credits rolled, burrowed in the back of my mind was the knowledge that this film was dangling from a precipice — and that, with a worse director, would almost certainly have plummeted into mediocrity.