Nope is jam-packed with allegories, messages, and tension-filled moments, but does it arrange all of those coherently without feeling overinflated? Nope.
“Hey, want to go see a movie?” I asked.
“Sure,” my friend replied. “You have anything in mind?”
And that’s how I ended up going to the opening night by myself.
Nope stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood, who own a ranch in an isolated countryside. However, their biggest worry isn’t the horses’ health or this month’s rent. There’s a strange flying object causing a string of bizarre occurrences around town, and it’s not a bird, it’s not a plane, it’s not even Superman. So instead of doing the most sensible thing, such as packing up and moving to the nearest well populated town, the two decide to gather all their resources instead, to try and document this phenomenon. I would say that’s unrealistic, but becoming viral on Youtube seems to outweigh personal wellbeing nowadays.
I had reasonably high expectations for Nope. The fact that this was from Jordan Peele certainly helped, considering he already has two good horror movies in his resume, Get Out and Us. But I was personally drawn more to the premise itself. While the topic of aliens and extraterrestrial civilizations often comes up in media – think of Star Trek or Star Wars – these films often look at things in a sci-fi setting, such as an alien solar system. What Nope seemed to promise was a story that hearkened back to the more old-fashioned alien stories with regular people coming across UFOs, not unlike ones you’d see on an episode of The Twilight Zone. Such premise seemed perfect for a horror spin.
However, the biggest feeling that plagued me after I watched the film was annoyance, because it completely ruined my plans for a clever review title. I initially planned on having a play on the movie’s name. If the film was good, it’d be DOPE. If the film was bad, it’d be NOPE. But when the end credits rolled, what came out of my mouth was instead a confused “eeeeh…?,” which doesn’t rhyme as well.
It’s not like this is a badly made movie. It’s shot and edited competently, and most of all, the film gets its horror aspect down well. As far too many people have said, what truly makes horror work is the fear of the unknown. And since this movie is literally about an unidentified flying object, it naturally brings in that fear factor. Throughout the film, the characters have no idea where this thing came from, what it wants, or how it works. Therefore, they’re left in anticipation of what its next move will be.
However, this also works in a meta sense for the audience. We know from the premise and the trailers that the movie is about aliens, but what we don’t know is just how the extraterrestrial will make contact. Yes, alien invasions have been a popular concept in cinema, but I’d argue that extensive knowledge only makes it harder to guess out of all the potential answer choices. Will it shoot laser beams? Spread poisonous gases? Spook the nearby bird population? And what sort of aliens are they? Are they humanoid, or are they more monstrous? While I will not spoil, the movie plays with those expectations masterfully, especially near its first third.
But even in a horror film, you can’t just string together scary moments and call it a day, otherwise it turns more into an overlong haunted house attraction. Engaging story and characters are necessary on a base level, to ease the audience into the flow of the movie. You might think that I’m filling up space with the most obvious critique, and you’d be right, but the issue is that Jordan Peele seems to have forgotten that very obvious fact.
Peele certainly has a lot to say with Nope, perhaps too much. Like with his previous movies, he puts in a hefty dose of social commentary, ranging from viral videos to surveillance culture, the allure of cinema, African American history in cinema, capitalism, and TMZ. All of those are certainly interesting topics to think about, and I don’t grudge a movie for trying to make me think. What I do take issue with is the movie sacrificing basic structure for the sake of thinking.
The actual pacing of the movie takes lurching leaps, like riding an incontinent horse. For the first two thirds of the film, things just happen, and while there are some bits of escalation, it still feels mainly flat, leading to the overlong haunted house ride feeling I mentioned before. Then, the movie transitions into a last act that feels more perfunctory than anything else. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much, but the characters make an escape after a severely dire situation, and succeed. However, they then decide to do something that feels completely irrational given their current situation. Perhaps if I understood the characters and their emotions better, I’d be able to understand why they would make that choice, but that is yet another issue with the film, as it failed to get me invested in the main cast.
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, as well as the rest of the supporting cast, give earnest performances here. But the actual dynamic between OJ and Emerald and their history together is incredibly understated. In the climax, the movie goes for the widely used “innocent action or catchphrase protagonist does or says in the beginning becomes part of an emotional moment later” trope, and it felt completely unearned, because even by the climax I was struggling to understand who these people were and just why they were doing what they were doing.
What we get in the place of natural escalation or character development are multiple other characters or scenes that seemingly have no contribution to the movie. The biggest example would be a subplot involving a chimp that keeps popping in and out of the story. I was confused about how it was relevant to the larger plot, and even when I thought about it all throughout dinner, I was left only with an empty bowl. Eventually, I gave up and had to look up articles online.
When I looked, I found those scenes tie into the main themes of the movie in a way, and it’s admittedly a bit clever. But enjoyment of a film shouldn’t just come from looking up one of those “I watched XXX at 0.25 speed and this is what I found” videos on Youtube. Get Out and Us also had their share of social messages that strike home in modern society. However, even without that, they were still well-made horror films with a comprehensible plot and understandable characters. If a film is engaging on its basic merits, it will naturally invite repeated viewings, and therefore a deeper examination of its messages.
W]hat Nope does, instead, is shove its ideas to the forefront to the point that it feels intrusive to the progression of the actual plot, leaving me questioning the movie itself more than its themes. And, like I said, there are so many of them, and not enough time to fully explore them all. Some of them could have been cut out and saved for another movie, because when a film tries to be a jack-of-all-trades, there’s a good chance it will end up as master of none.
Peele comes across as an overambitious chef presenting a full course meal. He wants to make Italian, Chinese, French, and much more, and presents each dish the moment they are done, without any regard to a proper sequence, so that we transition from entree to entree to entree to dessert to appetizer. That doesn’t mean he is a bad chef: the actual horror sequences are competently made and prove Peele still has a good grasp on his basic craft. But it is in the actual presentation of his craft that he struggles to lay out his overinflated vision.
Perhaps I am the problem. Perhaps I am just not getting it, whatever “it” is supposed to be. Maybe if I went back and analyzed every scene down to the third dust particle from the rightmost corer of the screen, the pieces would start to click. But then, the question would become, “why I should I need to go back in the first place?”. If a film just leaves me confused and mostly unengaged on the first watch, would I want to spend twelve dollars on another movie ticket? Nope.