Cloud watching will never be the same.
Writer, producer and director Jordan Peele has crafted another hard-punching horror with his newest film “Nope.” In a story which blends the fear of extraterrestrial and creature-feature genres, Peele’s third project shocks and awes in a way which has some calling it the “Jaws” of the sky.
“Nope” follows the family-run Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch just outside of Los Angeles. Daniel Kaluuya, best known for his role in Peele’s 2017 film “Get Out,” makes his triumphant return to a Peele flick as OJ Haywood: a Hollywood horse trainer grappling with the sudden and mysterious death of his father, played by Keith David. OJ is joined by his sister Em (Keke Palmer), who shows more interest in stardom than saving the family business.
A rapid crescendo of disappearing horses, electrical outages, strange falling debris and a huge disk hidden in the clouds inspires the Haywood siblings to take a shot at snapping the perfect UFO photo. What begins as a simple cash-grab photoshoot escalates into overwhelming terror as the UFO is not entirely what it seems.
Through its intense horror, “Nope” criticizes the exploitation of serious spectacles throughout Hollywood, opening with an apt line from the Old Testament: “I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.”
The film constantly flips this quote on its head, as opportunists who flock towards the mysterious UFO — from pretentious documentarians to TMZ reporters — are often met with swift and gory punishment when they don’t respect its unpredictable power.
This error is demonstrated in one of the most terrifying sequences of the film, as nearby theme park magnate Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) foolishly cashes in on his alien encounter by attempting to lure the UFO into his newest show. What follows is a collection of gut-wrenching shots of Jupe and his park attendees being swallowed up by the UFO.
The sequence is the product of a beautifully successful collaboration between Peele and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (“Tenet,” “Interstellar”). Shots of bodies violently careening upwards and parkgoers being shoved through the interior of the UFO are jaw-dropping and sure to thrill any avid horror fan.
Kaluuya similarly solidifies his creative connection with Peele, demonstrating his range by bringing realism to the stoic horse handler. OJ’s grief, withdrawn attitude and natural compassion are brilliantly balanced in Kaluuya’s nuanced performance.
Palmer takes on perhaps her most demanding role as Em Haywood — and mostly succeeds. The former child star’s chemistry with Kaluuya is thoroughly impressive and her character regularly entertains.
However, Palmer’s more emotional scenes tend to fall flat, mostly due to the script’s lack of focus on character establishment. The issue is especially obvious during Em’s anecdote about her late father’s refusal to let her train horses. It’s an essential insight into the character’s motivations, but this scene’s writing comes off as rushed and depthless, stifling Palmer’s performance.
A similar pattern arises with Angel Torres (Brandon Perea). In his breakout role, Chicago-native Perea plays a lovable, alien-obsessed tech expert that forces his help on the Haywood siblings. Much like Em however, Angel’s motivations and emotions are quickly glazed over, pointing to a slight neglect of character development in the script.
Despite its limits, “Nope” hits hardest where horror should: fear. While the film occasionally defuses tension with the comedy Peele built his name on, the recurring paranoid aura of “Nope” is not for jittery moviegoers. The film makes sure you will never look at colorful strings of flags, clouds and even chimpanzees the same way again.
Given its perspective-shifting effect, this film’s comparisons to Spielberg’s 1975 summer blockbuster, “Jaws,” make sense. However, the skilled performances and beautifully disturbing cinematography of “Nope” make it horrify in a way all its own.
“Nope,” rated R, is now in theaters.