Because I want to avoid spoilers, I can’t tell you exactly what happens in Nope. You probably know the basics — Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play brother and sister, OJ and Emerald Haywood, who think they see UFOs — but the surprises shouldn’t be ruined for you. One thing I can say, though: Whatever’s up there in the clouds menacing OJ, his sister and those in their orbit, it can’t compare to the terrors right here on Earth. Yup, welcome to the latest from Jordan Peele, who’s quickly becoming a master of the horror of the everyday.
In 2017, Peele made his feature directorial debut with Get Out, the Key & Peele comic showing off his considerable filmmaking talent in a serious, funny, unsettling satire about white America. Not only was it loads better than the previous year’s Keanu, which he co-wrote, co-starring with his longtime onscreen partner Keegan-Michael Key, Get Out was one of those zeitgeist-y smashes: a defining Trump-era artifact created at a time when Peele assumed that Hillary Clinton was going to win the presidency. Two years later, he returned with Us, a doppelgänger drama in which Lupita Nyong’o’s well-to-do family discovers that there’s a “tethered” family that wants to take their place. A story about the marginalized and the impoverished — a takedown of our cruel indifference to those less fortunate — Us was critical of this country in ways that Get Out hadn’t even touched, proving that America has plenty of horrors lurking just beneath the surface.
Now comes Nope, which might be his most visually and technically accomplished film yet. A little bit Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a little bit Jaws, Nope takes its time building in tension, but when the scares come, they pack a wallop. But while the alien intrigue is the story’s central focus, Peele has lost none of his frustration with a nation that continues not to confront its own mortal sins. The satire is subtler, but it hovers over the proceedings, not unlike whatever the hell that thing is that OJ sees in the sky.
Divided into chapters, sometimes cutting back to past events that add texture to the present, Nope pivots on the idea that Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer who took a sequential series of photos of a jockey riding a horse in the late 19th century, helped give birth to motion pictures. As Emerald explains to a group of white filmmakers early in Nope, we know Muybridge’s name and the horse’s name, but the identity of the Black jockey in those still pictures remains unknown — a foundational example of how Hollywood minimizes the contribution of Black actors and creators in its industry.
That imbalance clearly still exists in the entertainment business, but the concern is far from academic for OJ, who at the start of Nope is trying to corral one of his family’s horses for a special-effects shoot. OJ is in charge of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, a sprawling but financially strapped ranch that rents its stable of thoroughbreds out to Tinseltown productions. Haywood’s has been in the family for generations, and after OJ’s dad’s recent death, it’s now on his shoulders to keep the business afloat. (Emerald lends a hand on set, sort of, although she’s too busy talking up her other side-hustles to really concern herself with Haywood’s economic future.) Running this Black business in an industry with systemic racial inequality, the stoic, withdrawn OJ doesn’t like the company’s prospects going forward. Like that Black jockey nearly 140 years ago, maybe he’ll be erased from history.
When OJ observes a weird flying thing in the night sky soon after, his first thought is that perhaps it connects to his father’s demise. (Dear ol’ dad was hit in the head by a coin that plummeted at a great rate of speed from above — perhaps this same unidentified object?) But Emerald is a little more practical: People pay top dollar for clear images of UFOs, she insists, so if the two of them buy some security cameras, maybe they can net a nifty payday. To that end, they visit a Fry’s Electronics, a forgotten chain killed off by COVID, where they meet Angel (Brandon Perea), one of thousands of directionless Americans working a dead-end job. Turns out, Angel’s a UFO truther, and once he discovers their intentions for all these gadgets, he wants to help out. Anything’s better than wasting his life away at that soul-sucking big-box store.
By comparison, Jupe (Steven Yeun) seems to have a pretty sweet life. A former child star who was on a shitty laugh-track sitcom in the 1990s — albeit one that experienced a bizarre, shocking tragedy — Jupe has parlayed his success as a young actor into a profitable venture as the owner of Jupiter’s Claim, a SoCal theme park that’s meant to look like an Old West town. Homogenized and generic, Jupiter’s Claim appears to be the kind of shithole vacation spot that parents take their kids to if they can’t afford Disneyland. Still processing the trauma of what happened to him on set when he was a boy — while simultaneously cynically cashing in on his past celebrity — Jupe has bought some of OJ’s horses for Jupiter’s Claim so that the poor guy won’t lose his ranch. Out in the barren Santa Clarita Valley, these two are playing out a micro version of the country’s larger battle between haves and have-nots: OJ doesn’t resent Jupe, but he does find the artificial reality of his world a bit weird. Jupe’s too comfortable to care, although (as we’ll eventually discover) he too has noticed this UFO, smelling a business opportunity for himself.
Nope is hardly the first sci-fi movie about aliens in which the extraterrestrials symbolize something elemental about us. Whether it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still or 2001: A Space Odyssey or Arrival, those outer-space beings often hold a mirror up to our own hopes and fears, our basic decency and our worst tendencies. Peele’s film does that somewhat, but it’s in a less overt, more ironic manner than is customary. To his mind, this possible UFO is no bigger a deal than the inanity of network television or the struggles of a family business. Whenever the characters aren’t thinking about the UFO, their lives are small and silly and complicated, riddled with money woes and family drama and the quiet desperation of lives that haven’t amounted to much. If anything, trying to prove that aliens exist is a nice break from the monotony.
That Peele ends up making a lot of this ruefully funny is an encouraging sign that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor as his budgets and ambitions have swelled — that he hasn’t allowed all those “next big thing” accolades to go to his head. Blessedly, he’s held onto his knack for finding something endearingly ludicrous about how people try to make the best of their situation — and how we rationalize in order to ward off unwanted negative thoughts. His movies are often set in heightened, freaky worlds — the creepy, well-off white enclave of Get Out, the chilling tethered realm in Us — and Nope has no shortage of strange lands, including sterile Hollywood sets and tacky theme parks. (Even Fry’s has a nightmarish feel to it.) But the running joke throughout his films is that, really, these aren’t alien environments — they’re the landscapes we find ourselves in all the time, except maybe we call them social media or late capitalism. We’ve become so acclimated that we don’t even realize how scary they actually are.
Again, being careful of spoilers, I’ll simply say that whatever that UFO is or isn’t, Nope isn’t one of those sci-fi flicks in which the possible presence of aliens is some kind of punishment or metaphor — that their arrival is meant to teach us humans a lesson. There’s a lot of truly frightening stuff that happens in Nope, but I never once really feared for the end of the world, like you do in something like Independence Day or War of the Worlds. Nope seems to understand deep down that, one way or the other, this alien thing is gonna be taken care of. It’s a lot easier to handle than all the shit we’ve got to deal with on a daily basis.