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“Nope” Is a Wild but Self-Aware Mashup of Sci-Fi and Westerns


A chimp with blood on its hands. A man with a nickel lodged inside his brain. A horse with a key stuck in its flank. These are the unusual sights with which the new Jordan Peele movie, “Nope,” gets under way. All three details are upsetting, and none of them, as yet, can be explained. Peele just deals them out for us, with speed and confidence, as if to demonstrate that the world around us, in case we had any doubt, is way out of whack. That chimp, for instance, is not in the wild but in a TV studio—brightly lit, with signs overhead that read “Applause.” Some abomination is afoot, in the happy human zoo.

For five or ten minutes, I wondered whether the whole of the film might be like this: a collage of small specific horrors, free-floating and sharp-edged, with nothing to link them but their capacity to disturb. Wouldn’t that be cool, in a major production? Could it be that Peele, boosted by his triumphs with “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019), and primed with a chunky budget, had decided to go full Buñuel on us and slap us with one long visual poem? The answer is nope. Stories need to be told.

Much of the movie is set on a remote California ranch, where O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer), following the death of their father, run Haywood’s Hollywood Horses—“the only Black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood,” as Emerald says with pride. She is a force of nature, full of likable zip, and portrayed in flourishing style by Palmer; there’s no denying, however, that Emerald can be a liability. She arrives late for an appointment, disrupts other people’s conversation with the beat of her chatter, and plays her music so loud, upstairs at the ranch, that she can’t hear her brother. He is calling her from outside, in the gathering gloom, asking her to come and see what he has seen. Failing that, he will tell her what he thinks he saw.

There’s no roundabout way of saying this, and the trailer has fed us plenty of advance information, so here goes: “Nope” is about a flying saucer. Which is frustrating news for those of us who do fancy watching a film about the only Black-owned horse-training outfit in Hollywood. (Equestrian moviegoers will be notably disappointed. So rarely do the animals at the ranch appear to be fed, watered, groomed, or exercised, let alone trained, that I worried for their welfare.) But Peele is busy dishing up the saucer—an old-school model, with a touch of the funky Frisbee, possibly descended from the spaceship that landed in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951). For whatever reason, this new one is attracted to the scrubby valley where O.J. and Emerald dwell, concealing itself inside a motionless cloud or, for its next trick, scooting hither and thither through the sky. Can it be out-galloped by O.J., mounted on his trusty steed? Wait and see.

This is not the first film to mix Western tropes with science fiction. There was “Cowboys & Aliens” (2011), which did what it said on the package and no more. You could pretty much reconstruct the meeting at which the idea had been desperately, if successfully, pitched. Peele, though, has ambitions that range far beyond the mashup. It is one thing for the saucer to suck folks up into a mouthlike hole in its undercarriage; for any self-respecting space invader with abduction on its to-do list, that counts as basic good manners. But the saucer in “Nope” goes one better, expelling unwanted material all over the place—gallons of gore onto a rooftop, or indigestible scraps of chewy metal around a paddock. Hence the poor fellow, near the beginning, who, while on horseback, gets hit in the head not by an arrow but by a coin.

But something else is pricking this peculiar tale and spurring it on. It is both the right and the duty of O.J. and Emerald, in their role as ranchers, to shoot the baddie. Thus, when a man named Angel (Brandon Perea) comes to their aid, he is following a noble trail laid down by the hero of “Shane” (1953), who rode to the rescue of the Starretts, in their imperilled homestead. Just one tiny difference: Angel is a salesman at a local electronics store, and he’s here to install a couple of CCTV cameras, the plan being (a) to capture footage of the saucer doing its stuff, and then (b) to hawk the results for maximum profit. Emerald knows exactly what she needs: “The shot. The money shot. The Oprah shot.” Shooting your enemy, these days, means getting him on film.

What on Earth, and in the starry heavens beyond, is going on here? I’d have to catch the film again in order to unpick the careful stitching of its themes, but my guess, for now, is that the saucer’s real mission is to prove that the very possibility of a cowboy no longer exists—to ingest an old and exhausted American narrative and spew it back out. When O.J. is confronted by scary nocturnal intruders, in his stables, does he pull a gun on them? No, he whips out his cell phone and films them. At one telling moment, the aliens are referred to as “the Viewers,” and O.J. soon discovers how the spaceship, or whatever it is, locks onto its victims. “I don’t think it eats you if you don’t look it in the eye,” he says. Gazing is a prelude to consumption. In short, “Nope” is at once a summer blockbuster and a clarion call to grad students, urging them to open their laptops and start drafting a thesis entitled “Baudrillard, Debord, and the Peelean Commodification of the West as Spectacle.”

If you don’t believe me, check out the subplot. One day, O.J. and Emerald drop in on a friendly neighbor, known as Jupe (Steven Yeun). He dresses like a cowboy and owns Jupiter’s Claim, a low-rent theme park where families can pretend, in a faded and fleeting manner, to be in a Western. You can have your photograph taken from the depths of a well, as you crane over the lip: such fun! Hang on, though. Jupe has not just a business but a backstory. He used to be a child actor, in the nineteen-nineties, famed for being on a kids’ television show, where he starred opposite a chimp—yes, the same ape that we saw at the outset of the movie, apparently in the gruesome wake of a massacre. Oh, and Jupe also talks, at length, about a “Saturday Night Live” skit that made fun of the violent episode in question. Huh? By this stage, “Nope” is in danger of vanishing up its own saucer-hole, and I’ll be interested to learn how far a regular audience, in a multiplex, will be prepared to stay with Peele as he travels to the heart of the meta.

Not that anyone as smart as Peele (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) will be unaware of such risks. That is why he strives to connect the dots—bringing together the zones of his story with a bizarre sequence in which Jupe, hosting an outdoor event, promises a crowd of customers that the spaceship will swing by. But this is nonsense; hitherto, it wasn’t clear that he even knew about the alien presence. Infinitely more fruitful, I’m glad to report, is the final act of “Nope,” in which Peele summons all his moviemaking strengths and delivers a proper climax: thunderous, thrilling, trippy, and borderline nuts. It also finds a decent part for a horse.

The film, I suspect, will divide as many people as it conquers. Some may find it a bewildering hodgepodge; others will be wooed by its fetishistic penchant for the retro. Witness not only the spaceship but Emerald’s stereo system, too, and the hand-cranked mechanical cameras—one at the bottom of the well, another operated by a craggy cinematographer named Holst (Michael Wincott), who, at Emerald’s invitation, seeks to create an indelible record of the ranch’s mysteries. Add the astonishing nightscapes in the valley, with O.J. dwarfed by skies of bruised violet and blue-black, and you realize that to call “Nope” a horror flick is to do it a grave injustice. Like “Get Out” and “Us,” it is another resourceful meditation on fear and wonder—errant at times, yet strewn with frights and ever alert to the threat of racial hostility.

Best of all, we have Daniel Kaluuya, a one-man antidote to horror. Slouching and prowling, he requires extremely good reasons to be roused, impressed, or freaked out. As alien sagas go, “Nope” seems weirdly self-involved when set beside the clean and streamlined method that Spielberg brought to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); nonetheless, with Kaluuya’s help, Peele pays a beautifully witty tribute to the earlier film. Remember Roy (Richard Dreyfuss), pausing in his truck, after dark, while an inquisitive spacecraft hovers overhead? Well, O.J. does the same thing. Both guys lean out to see what’s happening. Roy gets flashed and scalded for his pains, and, as the encounter ends, he is left panting and shuddering in shock. O.J., on the other hand, opens the driver’s door, glances upward, and then, with unforgettable aplomb, slowly closes the door again. He contents himself with uttering a single word: “Nope.” ♦



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