In 1998, a chimpanzee roams the set of a sitcom living room… blood covers his hands and face. Bags and jackets lay abandoned among the studio’s seating, having been left behind by panicked audience members. Mostly obscured by an on-set couch lies a girl, completely motionless with only her legs and feet visible, and missing one of her shoes. The chimp hovers over the girl, examining her, before lowering his head behind the couch. When he looks up, even more blood drips from his jaws. He walks over to the opposite couch and leans against the side of it, panting, eyes scanning the room in an apparent moment of self-realization. Then he looks directly into the camera, and we cut to black.
Now in present day, Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) and his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) train and handle horses on their ranch for use in Hollywood films. The family apparently has a long history in this industry, as they claim their relation to the unknown horse rider in Eadweard Muybridge’s famous Horse in Motion photographs, described in the film as “the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture.” While doing training one day, Otis and OJ bear witness to a surreal series of events, as a sudden power outage is followed by several small objects raining from the sky. OJ looks over to his dad, just in time to see Otis’ body go limp whilst on horseback, and then fall off. OJ rushes his dad to the hospital as blood leaks onto the passenger seat. Once there, we see that a coin has embedded itself in Otis’ eye, killing him. Once back at the farm, OJ notices a small metal key buried in the side of his father’s horse.
Another six months later, the Haywood’s ranch has reached a financial breaking point. OJ wants to keep the business afloat at all costs to preserve his father’s legacy, but is forced closer and closer to the breaking point after a lost film deal leads him to sell some of the horses. The man to whom he sells the horses, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) offers to buy the entire ranch, but despite the encouragements of his sister Em (Keke Palmer) to go through with the deal, OJ refuses. Long story short, OJ hopes to preserve his father’s legacy, Em wishes to leave her family history behind and create her own legacy, and Jupe aims to reignite his career by exploiting (among other things) a certain chimpanzee incident to which he incidentally has a connection; these three all seek fame in some shape or form. It should come as no surprise, then, that the bold return of electrical anomalies to the valley capture the attention of these three, all of whom wish to use it to further their own dreams of notability among the masses.
Quickly becoming one of the most groundbreaking and altogether relevant filmmakers working today, Jordan Peele returns to the silver screen once again! And after the widespread acclaim and impact of his debut effort, Get Out (2017), and his more polarizing sophomore effort Us (2019), horror fans have been holding their breath for what a third outing could potentially hold. Remember, this is the man who has managed to squeeze very heavy ideas of racism and toxic self-image into otherwise fairly accessible movies. Although some thought the ideas presented in Us were a bit too overwhelming to the story, they’ll be happy to know that Peele’s follow-up effort, the nonchalantly-titled Nope, maintains these heavy undertones while also presenting a great summer popcorn blockbuster.
How great exactly? I’m talking a sci-fi/horror mashup with the hypnotizing spectacle of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the blunt self-reflection of District 9 (2007), and the chair-gripping tension of Signs (2002). Yeah, it’s THAT good. It’s as sure to keep your eyes locked to the screen in pure cinematic wonder as it is to make you sink back into your chair, dreading what might be right around the corner (or cloud, as the case may be). And despite often wearing creative influences on its sleeve (particularly the Spielbergian ones) Nope injects new life into the long-stagnant extraterrestrial sub-genre.
As the film’s characters search the skies for any alien activity, Peele’s camera invites us to do the same. Utilizing wide shots staring up at the clouds, the direction doesn’t always point out what it wants you to see, allowing you to discover it for yourself. Even during the more action-packed sequences, the image itself often remains mostly obscured by objects, dust, or darkness, showing you just enough to let your mind fill in the blanks. This allows for much more captivating action than any blatant imagery could even hope to achieve, and some of the most memorable and thrilling horror content we’ve seen in years.
Keeping in tradition with Peele’s previous features, Nope has plenty going on under its already thrilling surface. With its exploration of exploitation in the pursuit of fame and human obsession with drama consumption, it’s perhaps fitting that this film will truly launch the name Jordan Peele into the clouds of acclaim among modern horror filmmakers.
Overall rating: 9/10