Writer-director Jordan Peele’s third feature “Nope” is a big, bold affair, never lacking for ideas or set pieces. It just doesn’t work.
Going as far back as his sketch-comedy show “Key and Peele,” the horror auteur has always been a keen observer of media and culture, and setting this film among below-the-line players in the film and TV industry allows him to go deep on his obsessions with show business, genre and even the act of observing and being observed.
But, as with his sophomore feature “Us,” he throws out a lot of concepts that seem to require either much more or much less explanation, while frustratingly ignoring essential elements of plot and character that would assemble all of his beautiful pieces into a satisfying whole. (That said, viewers who were on the wavelength of “Us” may well find themselves on board for what “Nope” has to offer.)
After their father Otis Haywood, Sr. (Keith David) dies in a bizarre accident, Otis Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) – the fact that he goes by “OJ” is a literal running joke – and Emmy (Keke Palmer) inherit the Haywood Hollywood Ranch, a venerable farm supplying trained horses for the entertainment industry. (The Haywoods claim to be the descendants of the jockey who rode the horse in Eadward Muybridge’s pioneering 1878 short “The Horse in Motion.”)
The soft-spoken, laconic OJ remains committed to the day-in, day-out labor of maintaining the ranch, while his brash sister has other show-business ambitions. With live animals increasingly phased out by CG, OJ finds himself having to sell horses to a neighboring Wild West–themed amusement park managed by former child star Jupe (Steven Yeun), who survived a traumatic incident that occurred during the shooting of a ’90s sitcom.
That’s before OJ and Emmy come to realize that a UFO is hovering over the ranch, and they set out to make their fortune documenting it. (Jupe, meanwhile, has his own plans for exploiting this phenomenon.) After helping the Haywoods set up surveillance equipment, tech nerd Angel (Brandon Perea, “The OA”) keeps showing up uninvited to help them in their quest, one that will eventually rope in big-time cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).
To say more would be to get into spoiler territory, but “Nope” is a film that spoils itself by creating a rich tapestry of backstory that goes nowhere. Jupe’s childhood horror makes for some vividly terrifying moments – but then winds up connecting to the main plot just enough for a coincidence-based gag. (Not to mention a pointless exploitation of his horrifyingly injured co-star.) The rules of how one does or does not attract the alien’s attention don’t make all that much sense, and the resolution feels rote and random.
Peele remains a master of the suspenseful scene, and “Nope” has several, as OJ and Emmy and company struggle to elude and then later document the alien hovering above. But as the film strives for metaphor – people in various aspects of visual media battle a consuming force that can be overcome only by not looking at it, while also trying to photograph it – the pieces just don’t come together.
Even with the shortcomings of the script, Peele has a great eye for capturing everything from the minutiae of a Hollywood set to the grandeur of the canyons just outside Los Angeles. (One might argue he wanted to cross “The Day of the Locust” with “The Day of the Triffids.”) Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Tenet”), shooting with IMAX cameras, nails the ambience of a variety of Southern California locations, from the bright set of young Jupe’s three-camera sitcom to the vastness of the Haywood farm, often cloaked in shadowy night shots that accentuate the whites of Kaluuya’s eyes.
Kaluuya and Palmer have a funny and bristly sibling rapport, but the surprise VIP here is Perea, who makes a full meal of a recently-dumped retail clerk sublimating his grief into UFO-chasing. It’s a memorably comic turn crafted out of what could have been a mere plot device of a supporting character. (Osgood Perkins and Donna Mills snag a scene-stealing moment as, respectively, the director and star of a TV commercial, both handling OJ with dripping condescension.)
There’s no accusing of Peele of playing it safe, but the further he gets from the lean cohesiveness of “Get Out,” the more divisive and perplexing his films become. That may well be the point, and “Nope” will certainly set off new debates about what he’s doing, and why, and whether it was worth it. This ultimately feels like four very promising movies mashed together, with spectacular highlights bumping into each other in a way that’s ultimately lacking, even as they all demonstrate the prowess and bravado of the filmmaker.
“Nope” opens in US theaters July 22.