Jordan Peele's 'Nope': They're Here, and It's Not Good

[L-R] Daniel Kaluuya as OJ, Keke Palmer as EMERALD, Brandon Perea as ANGEL in NOPE

Jordan Peele knocked the proverbial socks off the film world's feet when he released the social horror Get Out in 2017, followed by Us in 2019. After these two thought-provoking and issue-driven horror films, Peele pivots to a horse of a different breed – a big and bold summer blockbuster. Less of a think piece and more of a popcorn flick, Nope still offers viewers plenty of chances to debate on what it all means. Even the title carries multiple meanings. The single image of a shoe still keeps me up at night.

Siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood grew up at the Haywood Ranch, where their family has trained horses used in movies for generations. After their father dies in a freak accident involving random metal objects falling from the sky, OJ struggles to make financial ends meet and carry on the family legacy. Emerald always felt sidelined by her father and has long ago opted out of caring about Haywood Ranch. She has big plans to become a star just as soon as she helps her brother empty the liquor cabinet. But when OJ spots a UFO hiding behind the clouds, he and Emerald believe that getting the perfect photograph of the UFO may be the key to their problems. They enlist the help of Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), an electronic shop employee, and Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a famed cinematographer, to get the job done right.

Photo still from NOPE

In his first two films, Peele centered the story on a small, localized ensemble of characters that brought universal themes to light. There was little room to misinterpret what Peele wanted to say. By pointing out the parts of society Peele despises, he creates hope for something different through the use of "lack." He creates space for a better world by highlighting the brokenness of ours. Nope allows for more flexibility in interpretation, and the results feel entirely different. On screen, the story "happens" to the Haywood siblings and their local community, but others will suffer if they fail in their quest. Like all disaster movies, the whole world is at risk. But this group of brave souls holds the key to understanding the enemy. And themes are more buried underneath the urgency of the action on screen. Nope leaves you breathless with little time to think until after the credits roll. And the definition of what a better world means is open for interpretation.

Jordan Peele partners with award-winning director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema and makes grand use of the Western setting with wide overhead shots. This choice shows off the landscape and mirrors the larger-than-life scope of Peele's vision. Like none of his movies before, Peele paints a world that is more vast than we can fathom. When the perspective remains on the ground, we behold the sea of sky above. But just as often, the perspective shifts to overhead shots from a bird's eye view. Our heroes look small and insignificant from this angle. In all this great expanse, does any one person matter in the grand scheme of things? Peele wants the answer to be a yes. What OJ, Emerald, Angel, and Antlers do counts, even if their courage never makes it on camera.

Steve Yeun as RICKY "JUPE" PARK in NOPE

Nope celebrates the efforts of those that work behind the scenes. Our heroes work in the show business industry but outside the limelight. They often get sidelined or ignored by peers. Like all Haywoods, OJ works as a horse trainer, breaking horses for show business. Emerald plans to find her own way, if she can just catch a break. In tracking this UFO, they each have a chance for something different. Initially, OJ and Emerald seek fame and their own benefit with the quest for the perfect shot. Their natural curiosity also compels them to discover the truth of what hovers in the sky. But what they truly seek isn't fame for its own sake. OJ feels a burden to keep the family business strong. As the oldest child, he feels that sense of responsibility. And Emerald simply wants to matter. She wants to feel she has a part to play in a greater story. In a key character reveal, she shares how she had to watch from a window while OJ and their father did a job she desperately wanted to do. Ultimately OJ realizes that the fate of the world rests in their hands. If they don't stop the evil in the sky, who will?

Peele capitalizes on these two talented actors by giving them opposite personalities. Kaluuya plays the taciturn OJ and barely speaks a word. Kaluuya can utter volumes with a single glance, which makes him perfect for this role. Palmer, who can talk to anyone in real life, waxes eloquent as Emerald. Their connection is the emotional heart of the story.

Keke Palmer as EMERALD in NOPE
The theme of fame is further explored in notable side characters, the most notable being Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun), a once famous child actor, who spends his time running a Gold Rush-themed fun park. After surviving a traumatic incident that killed or maimed the rest of the cast, Jupe was discarded by the film industry and spit out to dry. He spends his time plotting how to claim the vestiges of that spotlight once again, clinging sadly to those times with souvenirs from his show business days. Jupe represents the many child actors that achieve fame early and then get cast aside, only showing up in articles entitled "Whatever happened to …".

Peele uses all of these elements to examine the theme of spectacle. Today, more than ever, people want their 15 seconds of fame. When shocking things happen, the first instinct is to record, not act. We have horrifying evidence of terrible things that happen to people, yet to get these recordings, crowds become bystanders who feel that getting visual evidence is their only contribution. I am reminded of the horrifying documentary All Light Everywhere that introduced how surveillance equipment and cameras have always been weaponized. Rather than hit these themes hard, Peele leaves the edges fuzzy, allowing viewers to focus on the story. While it's unclear what Peele wants us to see, we know it isn't good. Discussing all the possible means afterward will be half the fun.

First and foremost, Nope is a UFO movie – the most action-packed UFO movie I have ever seen. Usually, this genre is 90% atmosphere and breathtaking night sky images. Nope is loud, intense, and chaotic. The horror lands like a sucker punch to the gut, once you piece together what's been going in the sky. While it's fun to ponder why Jordan Peele chooses to criticize the film industry using the medium of film or what the ending means, try not to get lost too much in the meanings that you fail to appreciate this bombastic blockbuster. Don't forget to enjoy the ride on your way to the top.

Release info: In theaters July 22, 2022

Final score: 4 out of 5