The marketing for Nope seems like a gamble. It’s been layered in mystery, designed to spark more questions than actually telling people what this movie was about. (Which is interesting because director Jordan Peele has been very upfront all along, “It’s an alien movie.” He isn’t lying: it’s an alien movie.) So now I’m curious how audiences will react to a movie that, to this point, has promoted itself as one of the great mysteries of our time, when in reality the movie itself isn’t hiding much. Now, that’s not saying it doesn’t have anything to say, but this isn’t Super 8, when we finally see the alien near the end of the movie. In Nope we see the alien fairly early. So, in that regard, Nope isn’t quite what you think it’s going to be, but maybe only because it’s perhaps more crowd-pleasing and has more scenes in common with a traditional summer alien movie than you’re probably expecting. I mean, look, it is being released in July. There’s a reason for that.
At the home of OJ and Emerald Haywood – siblings, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, who own a horse ranch and supply horses to Hollywood productions – there’s a poster for the 1972 film Buck and the Preacher that is featured prominently in a number of shots, to the point you can’t really miss it. After Nope, I wound up watching Buck and the Preacher (I highly recommend this), Sidney Poitier’s directorial debut, which is considered to be the first studio Western with a primarily Black cast. And now here’s Jordan Peele, 50 years later, releasing a movie that certainly has Western themes, but is the first big-budget summer alien movie with a primarily Black cast.
One day, random objects start raining from the sky over the Haywoods’s ranch, things like coins and keys. Around the same time, a former child star, Ricky Park (Steven Yeun, who has one of the best and funniest monologues I’ve seen in a movie in some time), comes a calling with intentions to rent numerous horses from the Haywood ranch for somewhat mysterious reasons. (Ricky Park, at this point, is best known for being on a sitcom in the mid-’90s where a monkey attacked the cast, which we see in a lot of gory flashbacks. Ricky tells this story through the lens of the fictional SNL sketch based on the incident in which Chris Kattan plays the monkey. Ricky’s over-enthusiasm at Kattan’s portrayal of the monkey left me delighted. “He’s killing it … I mean, it’s fucking Kattan!”)
Eventually, OJ and Emerald decide (a) yes there’s an alien and (b) they need to film the alien, then they would go down in history as the first people who ever filmed alien life. There are a couple of problems. First, whenever the alien shows up, all electrical and mechanical devices stop working. Second, other people nearby are starting to figure out there’s something strange going on and they, too, might want to try and film the alien. They first enlist the help of a local Best Buy-type technician, Angel (Brandon Perea, who is hilarious), who, once he sets up the new security system, just kind of invites himself to stick around and see what happens. Then they hire acclaimed cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, who is just awesome), who seems more interested in getting the perfect, magic hour shot than just getting proof of alien life. And the movie just focuses on these five characters, to its benefit. (I guess six if you count the alien.)
Nope takes plenty of jabs at Hollywood and, as Peele as said, the nature of spectacle. There will be a lot to be written about the deeper meaning of Nope as the weeks go on (to do so now gets into too many spoilers), but maybe the best thing about Nope is the movie itself doesn’t get bogged down with these themes. It’s not a dour experience. There was a moment in the movie I stopped trying to figure out every reference, decided to just save all that for later, and enjoyed the ride of what’s a really fun alien movie. This is a movie with swagger and just looks absolutely gorgeous. (This is Peele’s first collaboration with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot movies like Interstellar and Dunkirk. Also, Nope shares some DNA with Top Gun: Maverick in this regard, being a movie that looks fantastic, but the story avoids being convoluted like so many summer movies tend to be.)
This is why, when I interviewed Peele, I was hesitant to bring up how much this movie reminds me of Tremors. (Only instead of being under the ground, it flies.) I could see a world where Peele would be like, “Hey, I have something to say here and you’re comparing it to Tremors?” Obviously, that did not happen and, as it turns out, Peele is a huge fan of Tremors. And, now knowing that, it’s an obvious influence on Nope. The thing about Tremors is, that’s a movie with swagger. And Nope has a similar swagger that Peele was smart to use. But that’s what’s fascinating about Jordan Peele and his movies: yes, obviously, they have a lot to say, but Peele also loves genre movies. During an interview he’ll start talking about how much he loves The Lost Boys and Corey Feldman. He’s a director who takes it as a huge compliment to have his new big-budget alien movie be compared to Tremors. With Nope he’s proven he knows how to make an unbelievably entertaining summer alien movie that can draw the masses … while at the same time warn people about the nature and danger of spectacle.
‘Nope’ opens in theaters this weekend. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.