16 August 2022


Nope. (2022) Directed by Jordan Peele. Universal, 2022.

My first reaction to Jordan Peele’s highly personal UFO film Nope didn’t have me crying out Yep but announcing with a contented smile on my face, Maybe? Nope is definitely a mess but a very entertaining, intelligent, creative mess. A film that’s both bloated, about twenty minutes overlong, and at the same time exact - speedy idiomatic dialogue where you have to be quick off the draw to catch.)
Nope’s a sharply satirical rift on the film and carnival show industry with a creepy delivery of SF tropes. It often behaves like a western (all agitated horses and riders) battling against a deliberately (?) cheesy flying saucer: the huge spacecraft, hiding in a cloud, resembling a poached egg / jelly fish which stretches into a fungi growth. These engaging and scary Nope delights do accompany a somewhat confused script – but more of that later.

I wondered if Peele’s Nope pre-production made him watch the straight TV western episode of the cult 60’s identity-anxious The Prisoner alongside those rubbery alien moments in The Outer Limits? And had he read George Saunder’s theme-park fiction? Peele’s an original - a black filmmaker with stimulating ideas: fully aware of genres and early film history; combine that with Peele’s anger about racism in popular culture as he inventively strikes out to re-cycle and subvert tradition.

At the Heywood’s Hollywood Horses Ranch horses are trained for film and TV production work. O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) has inherited his father’s ranch after his recent mysterious death. He lives with his sister Em (Keke Palmer). One day they observe a strange cloud in the sky that’s concealing a UFO. When it appears it swallows up those who look straight at it. The Heywoods call on the aid of cinematographer Antlers Hoist (Michael Wincott) and persuade him to put their UFO evidence on film, a project that proves to be hazardous.

That’s Nope’s main story and part from the film’s unexplained self-sacrifice of the cinematographer (who looks like a villain in a Italian western) I happily enjoyed the suspense, action and humour (if not enough) of its predatory alien concept.

Yet the big flaw of Nope lies in its strange sub-plot. Flashback to 1998. A chimpanzee (animal actor) goes berserk on the set of a TV sitcom launches a brutal (unexplained) bloody attack on the actors. A child actor survives but is traumatised by the violence. When grown up Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) exploits (though it’s unclear in the script) his trauma by creating a Western theme-park called Jupiter’s Claim. At a live show he attempts to bait the UFO. Unfortunately the UFO (now called Jean Jackett, why?) vacuums up Jupe and his audience.

The ape storyline is less whacky than alien forces yet feels implausible and doesn’t coherently connect with the Heywoods’s struggle against the alien. All this loose plotting is also hampered (at least for the earlier part of the movie) by the insularity of Daniel Kaluuya’s performance. Admittedly O.J. is still grieving for his father and rightly angry at the casual racism he encounters on film sets but for me Nope’s central character turned dramatically rigid.

Fortunately Peele gradually moves our attention away from O.J. to make his extrovert sister Em the strong heroine of Nope who will destroy the UFO monster. Keke Palmer delivers a terrific winning performance: saving the day to take old analogue photographs of her victory.

Nope is a fractured ambitious production whose script goes awry making it tricky to know how to fully read the film. However Nope’s ideas concerning the archaeology of pre-cinema emerge boldly. Em is forever telling everyone the story of how she is a direct ancestor of the black stuntman on a horse who worked with Eadweard Muybridge on his 1878 photographic studies of motion in humans and animals. This image is successfully carried throughout Nope to act as a liberating force not just for brother and sister protagonist but as an unacknowledged part of black culture.

Nope has a strong quota of creepiness with its effective use of silence, the sound of the UFO monster’s roar and its victims helpless protestations. It’s exciting, almost Spielberg Jaws-like action. However the ‘simpler’ chase scene material also impresses. Like OJ riding his horse in pursuit of a film-crew man (a rival human / alien nuisance who desires to take pictures of the UFO monster) through the valley. I watched this at the BFI Imax, which has the biggest screen in the UK, and was perfect for depicting visceral chases against a panoramic Western landscape.

The consensus of opinion is that Nope isn’t as substantial a film as Peele’s previous efforts the brilliant Get Out and his equally remarkable US. Those films had a clearer focus. Nope is the weakest Peele film yet: less emotionally complex, with ideas that aren’t fully worked through, although it’s probably Peele’s most sheerly entertaining work – there’s a pleasurable B picture energy throbbing through its Universal blockbuster pretensions.

Never a film for the serious ufologist more a “go with the flow” SF horror trip examining both sharply, and intermittently slackly, outdoor spectacle and movie exploitation as much as our need to keep staring up vigilantly at the skies and say nope, not tonight!
  • Alan Price

NOPE is currently screening at The BFI IMAX, Southbank, London 
until the 1st September 2022.

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