Given how many of its influences that it wears right on its sleeve – from animes like Evangelion and Akira to Spielberg’s alien features and Poltergeist – what is perhaps most impressive about Nope is how fresh it nevertheless feels. Working at his highest budget level to date, Jordan Peele doesn’t seem to have been constrained at all by the studio, packing in all the iconic imagery and unnerving ideas that defined Get Out and Us while also providing the sort of pure spectacle that Nope’s summer blockbuster status demands.
Nope reunites Peele with Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya, who here plays OJ Haywood, a Hollywood horse trainer and descendent of the Black jockey who starred in the first ever moving picture – a two second clip of a running horse. In a financially precarious position after the mysterious death of his debt-ridden dad, compounded by a commercial set’s blasé approach to his horse’s safety leading to near disaster and costing OJ a job, he finds a terrifying potential salvation in a UFO he spots above his family ranch.
Teaming up with his more outgoing younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), OJ hatches a plan to learn the UFO’s patterns and capture it on film, ready to sell the footage for fame and fortune. It’s a plan that, of course, ends up far more dangerous than anyone bargained for, but to go any further into the plot would start to spoil some of the year’s most enjoyable mysteries. The UFO – dubbed ‘Jean Jacket’ by the Haywood siblings after a horse they had when they were kids – makes for a formidable foe, set-pieces involving it oscillating wildly between terror and awe in a way that is utterly gripping.
Kaluuya and Palmer are both great, each giving proper movie star performances that bounce off one another perfectly – Kaluuya more reserved and solemn, telling us everything we need to know with just his eyes, while Palmer is consistently the life of the party. Their sibling bond feels completely genuine throughout too, a family bond told mostly through their non-verbal interactions. Also very impressive is Brandon Perea as Angel, the tech support worker who sets up OJ and Emerald’s camera rigs and the closest thing Nope has to a scream queen, while Michael Wincott’s gravelly baritone is a great fit for the brilliantly named Antlers Holst, a legendary cinematographer who agrees to help the Haywoods in capturing their ‘impossible’ shot.
Rounding out Nope with a story that mostly runs in parallel to the rest of the cast is Steven Yeun as Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park, who owns a nearby cowboy-themed amusement park who has his own designs on the UFO and a backstory that includes the film’s purest horror. As a kid, Ricky was an actor on a ‘90s sitcom called ‘Gordy’s Home’ that went hideously wrong after one of the performing chimps that played the titular ‘Gordy’ savaged the rest of the cast, and the flashbacks to this moment elevate Nope’s constant thrum of understated tension and unease to blaring, heart-in-mouth levels.
It’s one of the most fiendish and ingenious ideas from Peele in a film that is absolutely full of them, and he does manage to tie it back to his central story, which ends up being about movies themselves as much as aliens, examining – somewhat literally – how the industry chews up and spits out the people and animals at the bottom of its ladder. Nope’s script might not reach the sleek perfection of Get Out, but it’s not really aiming at that so much as it seeks to expand and improve on the ambitious ambiguity of Us, a target it exceeds with flying colours, while also keeping Peele’s trademark dark humour firmly intact.
Even in the less obviously spectacular moments, Nope is beautifully shot by Christopher Nolan’s go-to DOP Hoyte van Hoytema. As he proved in Dunkirk, Hoytema is one of the very best working cinematographers when it comes to capturing vast skies, and there couldn’t be a better fit than that for this alien story in which a fear of what’s above is just as integral as a fear of the sea was to Jaws. As is so often not the case for films like this, Nope is just as thrilling once the central mystery is revealed as it is when it’s keeping you in the dark, a truly rare achievement that lasts up until the ludicrously satisfying finale to crown one of 2022’s most purely exciting films.