Review: Jordan Peele’s Alien Invasion Thriller Nope Resists the Filmmaker’s Usual Thematic Undertones

Although it may take a while to realize it, Nope, the latest work from writer/director Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us), will eventually reveal itself to be two different stories joined at the center by the search to discover exactly what is going on in the skies above an isolated gulch in inland California. The location houses both Haywood Hollywood Horses, a Black-owned (by OJ Haywood, played by recent Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah) business that rents out trained horses to film and television productions, and a manufactured Western town/theme park, operated by former child actor Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, Minari) and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt). 

The two businesses aren’t connected in any way, except in their proximity, but both men have unique approaches to dealing with the presence of a dark, saucer-shaped object that hides in the clouds and occasionally swoops down and grabs up whatever happens to be out in the open looking up at it, both wildlife and people. Both men grew up as part of the Hollywood system: OJ’s father, Otis (Keith David) ran the business until his bizarre death, which is shown early in the movie, while Jupe had been on a wildly successful 1990s sitcom that co-starred a chimp named Gordy (Terry Notary, the motion-capture guru of Planet of the Apes fame). The show’s run was abruptly ended after a freak mishap, an incident we are shown a handful of times from different perspectives, each one getting progressively more terrifying. But it was an event that left Jupe feeling he had some connection, and maybe even some control, with non-human creatures, a belief that puts him and his customers in harm’s way later in the movie.

Both men have this belief, actually, but OJ’s is perhaps more earned since he trains horses for months before introducing them into his stable of performers. And it’s the concept of observing and understanding animal behavior that leads both men to believe that they can do the same with whatever is endangering them in the sky. To keep his business afloat, OJ must sell off some horses to Jupe’s park, so the two know each other well. OJ believes at some point, his business will pick up and he can buy the horse back, and he enlists the help of younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), who treats the operation as a means to promote her own fledging career as a singer/actor/director. Kaluuya is so low-key as OJ (you even get a sense he’s embarrassed of his own name, for obvious reasons) that he talks very little but relies a great deal on non-verbal looks and actions to get his point across. Quite often, his delivers a look or a single word of dialogue that provides some of the film’s biggest laughs. He’s so in control, it can be frustrating at times, but more often, it’s fascinating to watch how committed he is to making more out of less.

The behavior of the object in the sky and the rules the humans below must follow to not get snatched up is fairly typical for alien invasion movies. I liked the addition of Fry’s Electronics employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), who helps install cameras all around HHH’s property but quickly figures out what they’re being used for when OJ wants them all pointed at the sky. The Haywoods are hesitant to involve outsiders in their plan to capture the perfect shot of the object in the sky (the Oprah shot, Emerald calls it) that would put all other shaky, blurry UFO videos to shame. Soon they realize that the tendency for electronics to die out when the object approaches makes them realize they need a real cinematographer in the camp, and they recruit Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who is eventually convinced to join up with a hand-cranked camera when he’s promised the chance to get “the impossible shot.”

As we’ve been trained to do with Peele’s films, our eyes and ears scan the film, looking for subtext about race and class and society, not unlike the way the characters in the film scan the clouds, seeking out a moving sliver of darkness to point their camera toward. And while there is the occasional glimpse of commentary on fame at any price and the misconception of controlling the uncontrollable, Peele doesn’t seem as intent on packing Nope with message (I’m sure other writers and analyzers of this movie will prove me wrong). Instead, the film is filled with personal stories of regret, disappointment, tragedy and a family divided but trying hard to use this project as a means to repair the rift. Very few of these themes are truly developed to their fullest potential, and as a result, the film feels hollow, existing primarily on the surface.

With that being the case, perhaps Nope can be saved by Peele delivering a powerhouse UFO picture, but there’s something off about the pacing, the way the film jumps around in time and between its two main storylines. Even the tone of its tension feels unclear. Technically, the movie is shot beautifully by Hoyte van Hoytema, and Peele seems most in control when leaning into the humorous and more outrageous aspects of the plot. Things begin to crumble when it comes to character development and the weirdly drawn-out final act, when all of the film’s loosely drawn threads are meant to come together and simply don’t. Individual encounters with the skyward object might make audiences tense, but their connections to the characters will be tentative at best, making us not as invested in who gets scooped up and who doesn’t (it isn’t that difficult to predict who survives the movie).

One of the themes that does come through in Nope is the treatment and watering down of creative artists in the Hollywood system, and perhaps Peele felt a bit of that as his comedy career skyrocketed not that long ago. The Haywoods feel like bit players who are ordered around by those in charge of sets, and it becomes frustrating to watch as it probably has been for Black talent for decades. It’s a subject well worth exploring, and I wish Nope had done so. Instead, we get a taste of what a less-invested Peele project feels like, and I hope he swings back in the other direction for whatever he does next.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.