The science fiction thriller “Nope” is director Jordan Peele’s third feature film. Having made a name for himself in sketch comedy, Peele entered the filmmaking scene with 2017’s “Get Out”, a wonderful horror-comedy that raised some eyebrows by exploring the subtle racism found in American liberalism.
That film made a ton of money at the box office and won Peele a screenwriting Oscar, effectively setting him up as a filmmaker to watch. Some consider his follow-up, “Us”, to be even better, though I vehemently disagree. While that film’s first forty-five minutes are incredibly compelling, it starts to lose its way as it gets bogged down in its own mythology. “Nope” falls victim to this tendency, as well, making one wonder if “Get Out” was some sort of fluke. This is a film that patiently raises questions, gives us snippets of information, and slowly revs the audience up for a fascinating confrontation, only to fumble the ball and resort to undercooked action cliches. While the film ended on a note of triumph, it only made me shrug.
Our story begins with the tragic and unlikely death of a Hollywood horse trainer (Keith David) whose kids take over the family business, though not very successfully. The dour OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and the upbeat Emerald (Keke Palmer) do what they can to keep the business going, but soon find they must sell their horses to a nearby Old West theme park run by former child actor Jupe (Steven Yeun) to keep the lights on. Soon, strange things begin to happen. Horses are disappearing and OJ swears he sees a strange aircraft in the sky. Convinced it’s a UFO, he and Emerald go about trying to capture the craft on film, hoping for a payday that will save the family business. They recruit a veteran Hollywood cinematographer (Michael Wincott) to help them definitively document the existence of extraterrestrials. As one might assume, this winds up being more difficult than expected.
So here we have a sort of alien invasion film told on a small, familial scale. One can be forgiven for thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s superb 2002 film “Signs”, which brought the massive scope of a film like “Independence Day” down to a more human level. But where that film brought several disparate elements together into one singular whole, “Nope” remains a series of interesting vignettes that never fully coalesce.
For example, we see scenes from Jupe’s childhood, when he worked as an actor on a sitcom based around a friendly chimp. One day, the chimp drastically changes in behavior, and savagely attacks several people on set. This moment, combined with Jupe’s attempt to capitalize on the existence of OJ’s space aliens, would seem to convey a message about trying to tame the untamable. Several wonderful films have been made around this concept, as far back as “King Kong”, but this movie never really explores the idea. Instead, like so many other elements of the story, it plays with the concept a bit, then drops it in favor of the latest plot development.
What makes this truly frustrating is that the film so effectively creates and maintains a tone of awe and dread for the first hour or so. The mystery at hand continually grows until the audience is just as eager to know what’s going on as the characters themselves. Peele has shown himself to be an extremely capable visual director. His eye for composition and his ear for sound design make for an impressive combination. However, his writing falls short, which is unfortunate, given how solid the screenplay for “Get Out” is.
The actors all do their best to unify the conflicting story and character beats, to middling effect. Kaluuya, an intensely charismatic actor, is saddled with playing a tight-lipped, no-nonsense type whose sense of loyalty to his father is palpable, but who is nonetheless difficult to connect with. Palmer brings some much-needed energy and is mostly a delight. However, once again, like so many other elements of the film, her unique qualities begin to fade away as the film enters its third act. The supporting players fare a little better, particularly the always-reliable Wincott (who, it seems, is slowly turning into Tom Waits). Here, Wincott crafts an enigmatic character whose motivations are known only to him. This makes him easily the most intriguing character of the film; a sort of Quint by way of Ansel Adams.
Despite the best efforts of the cast, “Nope” goes off the rails in its last act. As our characters work to lure the UFO towards them, always being careful to obey its rules of engagement, things eventually turn chaotic, with everybody making unmotivated choices and the UFO itself attacking seemingly at random. Given the occasional theme of trying to bring order out of chaos, this turn might make sense. However, it never quite seems like these are specific directorial choices dictated by thematic curiosity. Instead, it feels as if Peele doesn’t really know how to end his movie, so he just decides to do whatever sounds good, regardless of how it breaks down the carefully-crafted story and characters he has created.
In the end, “Nope” is an unsatisfying film. As with “Us”, the deliberate pacing of the first half gives way to a climax that amounts to little more than “just a bunch of stuff that happened”, as Homer Simpson would say. This is what makes the film so frustrating. Were the movie to be awful and unfocused throughout, that would be one thing. But Peele is clearly a talented filmmaker and visualist. He is able to build and maintain suspense, all with a wry sense of humor. Many filmmakers long to have Peele’s directorial instincts, which is why it’s so disappointing when he squanders them.