You could write multiple, lengthy essays on the themes in “Nope,” a film that certainly will be analyzed and discussed by students and fans for many years to come.
You could also kick back, grab some popcorn, and become immersed in a world of spectacle, enjoying the cinematic ride at face value.
That’s what’s so interesting and ambitious about writer / director Jordan Peele‘s third big screen project: it’s a film with incredible thematic depth that’s presented in summer blockbuster fashion. It’s a film that will appeal to those who just want to relax and escape for a couple of hours, as well as those analytical-minded audience members who are seeking something with a deeper meaning.
OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) run a California horse ranch with their father (Keith David). The family has supplied trained horses to Hollywood projects for decades. After their father dies in a sudden and bizarre tragedy, the siblings discover something sinister in the skies above their property. With the help of a conspiracy theorist tech clerk (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott), the group sets out to capture the otherworldly phenomenon on film, hoping to claim their share of fame and fortune. The owner of an adjacent Western theme park (Steven Yeun) is also trying to profit off the strange happenings.
On the surface, it’s a great premise that reads like a simple and straightforward throwback to alien invasion movies of the 1950s. It’s an homage to the sci-fi classics from Steven Spielberg, too, but with a richly-layered depth that’s thought-provoking and impressive. Provocative themes that deal with exploitation, commercialism, childhood trauma, racism, society’s obsession with media spectacle, and profiteering off tragedy are ample, offered up to viewers if they care to engage. That’s what makes this film one with great storytelling: it’s accessible in a way that entertains, while making weighty statements to prove a point.
Peele sometimes sacrifices story for social commentary, especially when he can’t quite find the common thread to tie everything together in the film’s third act. This is where the film suffers a frustrating setback, from the primitive special effects to a drawn-out science fiction action sequence that somehow manages to feel out of place. It’s a small criticism to be sure, as the rest of the film is excellent.
Peele knows how to direct his actors, and he draws out stellar performances from his entire cast. Palmer and Kaluuya have a casual, believable rapport that left me wanting more. Peele also has a flair for genre filmmaking, with an enviable knack for timing. He shows and tells you just enough to build a strong sense of mystery and suspense. The storytelling is slow but intense and with the exception of the finale, the theming doesn’t feel like it’s being shoved in your face.
“Nope” may turn out to be divisive among critics and moviegoers, but there’s so much at play here that I can’t wait to revisit it for a second viewing. I’ve not been a fan of Peele’s previous films, but this one, I like. A lot.