Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Stephen Yeun, Michael Wincott
Director: Jordan Peele
Since Get Out took the world by storm, director Jordan Peele and his company Monkeypaw Productions have gone from strength to strength, winning wild acclaim for BlacKkKlansman and Us, delivering some of the most successful black-fronted movies at a time when Hollywood is finally making attempts to diversify. Until now, Peele’s movies have all had social issues at their heart, but Nope sees a departure from this, still using a richly diverse cast – including Keke Palmer as a charming lesbian – but instead placing them as the leads in a crowd-pleasing popcorn-munching sci-fi monster movie with enormous mass appeal. And the result is a rip-roaring success. Well, mostly.
OJ (Kaluuya – Get Out, BlacKkKlansman) and his sister Em (Palmer – Hustlers, Lightyear) run a horse ranch in California, where they train horses to be used in movies. Next door, former child-star Jupe (Yeun – Minari, The Walking Dead) runs a failing theme park. When both discover there is some form of flying saucer frequenting the skies above them, they react differently, with the former trying to capture it on the film, while the latter tries to exploit it for commercial gain. But ultimately, this presence in the sky above their heads is entirely hostile and wants to kill every life form in its path, which includes all of them, regardless of their intentions.
Essentially, this is an extremely well-crafted movie about alien encounters, which can sit proudly alongside Close Encounters, Super 8 and Contact. The flying saucer moves silently across the sky, slipping between the cloud cover that it uses as camouflage. If you think that a hovering disc can’t be intimidating then think again, because Peele has done a terrific job at reinventing and re-examining exactly what a UFO is, with the result both terrifying and mind-boggling.
Kaluuya and Palmer – in particular – deliver great performances as the spunky young upstarts trying to battle this intergalactic foe, while Brandon Perea’s clumsy klutz is an endearing addition to their team as the CCTV installation engineer who can’t resist getting involved when he realises what they’re surveilling. Nope does a fantastic job of developing strong and vivid characters for us to buy into, although with one notable exception.
The film goes to great lengths to give us Jupe’s backstory, with multiple flashbacks – including the film’s opening scene – depicting his childhood on-set when a trained monkey went crazy and slaughtered his co-stars during the filming of a sit-com. Such weight is given to this subplot within the film that we’re left waiting for when it will prove significant to the overall narrative; but that moment never comes. Beyond characterisation of a secondary character, it serves no purpose whatsoever, seemingly pointless within the wider story. In what is otherwise an exceptionally crafted movie, this tangent feels like an absurd misfire that perplexingly made it past the editors untrimmed.
However, Nope serves thrills aplenty and once it catches the wind in its sails, it’s pacy, exciting and exactly what we all want from a summer blockbuster. With a finale involving those inflatable wobbly men from car garages that feels like it’s been lifted straight from Stranger Things, this is the perfect clash between an intelligent and sophisticated foe with a group of unequipped but plucky heroes. There’s something infinitely more compelling about watching amateurs battle a malevolent adversary, but at the point that your house is bathed in the blood and entrails of its forty victims, surely you can’t help but question whether maybe that might be time to call in the authorities?
Peele has created a wonderful slice of genre cinema with all the hallmarks of a modern populist classic. While maybe not as a good as Get Out, it certainly beats Us and reaffirms that Peele is at the top of his game. A tense, gory and unsettling thrill-ride, it’s also wittily restrained, with something weirdly satisfying about the characters sparingly finally uttering the titular “Nope!” in moments of extreme peril. And the reaction from the audience was nothing short of magic.
UK Release: Out now to watch in cinemas, released by Universal Pictures