NOPE (Movie Review)

Yep, GET OUT director Jordan Peele finally misfires with NOPE, a surprisingly dull sci-fi thriller.

** out of ****
Rated R
(for language throughout and some violence / bloody images)
Released: July 22, 2022
Runtime: 135 minutes
Directed by: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott, Wrenn Schmidt, Donna Mills, Keith David

After the breakout phenomenon of his debut horror film Get Out and the unsettling, provocative follow-up Us, the big question for writer / director Jordan Peele would be if his third movie would continue that stellar streak of high art pop cinema.

The answer, unfortunately, is right there in the title.

Nope is Peele’s first notable misfire, a would-be summer blockbuster teeming with potential that sputters along as a listless genre exercise. Though aiming for scares as he did in his previous efforts, Peele dials back the horror a few notches while taking a big sci-fi swing. Peak Spielberg is the goal here but the results are closer to Shyamalan-in-decline, a clever high concept that can’t fulfill the possibilities of its premise.

In basic terms it’s an alien invasion movie, but set in a rural context rather than global, relegated to the specific ranch lands of two Hollywood horse trainers. They’re a unique team, an African-American sister / brother tandem (Keke Palmer and Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) whose great-grandfather was the first person ever filmed in moving pictures (riding a horse, naturally). 

It’s an intriguing legacy that seems ripe for social commentary (especially for Peele, given his track record) but the thematic and racial implications are just one of several aspects that Peele fails to follow through on in any meaningful way. They’re there but they never resonate, just like so much of Nope.

The first forty-five minutes is mostly a series of teases and misdirects, providing brief (and cheap) scares, morseled out with the apparent promise of more credible frights to come. During that time the plot unfolds in a slow roll, needlessly patient and with a tone that drags more than builds. The suspense is tepid and the characters flat (by no fault of the ensemble, to be sure; they’re given little to work with).

Shot with IMAX cameras by Christopher Nolan’s go-to cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, it’s grand in scope. There’s ambition here with visuals to match, but it’s the story that falls short. Random ideas are loosely-knit together. The pieces are there but they never synthesize.

Case in point: the backstory of Steven Yeun’s Cowboy Showman, which does little (if anything) to inform the present events. There’s a terrifying trauma at its core but it’s also implausibly drawn out, as is pretty much everything in Nope.

When payoffs finally start to come in the second and third act, they’re not as bold or blindsiding as one would hope. The stakes (which are to capture footage of the spacecraft and live to tell the tale) aren’t imperative and, worse yet, are completely voluntary, taken on by choice rather than necessity. Consequently, when characters choose to take risks, it’s difficult to muster any sort of emotional investment or even care if they live or die.

And the pièce de résistance? Kaluuya’s OJ discovers a simple ploy that keeps the aliens at bay even when they close in for a kill, but the tack is quite possibly the oldest (and most convenient) cliche in the book.

Peele can still wield cinema with some formidable prowess, but Nope is ultimately all style and no substance (or to the extent there is depth, ideas are too cryptic or left to peripheral symbolism). There’s a mastery of technique on display but it’s all just propping up a threadbare plot with no compelling arc or end. Nope‘s biggest surprise is how underwhelming it is.

Even so, Nope should prove to be a blip in Jordan Peele’s career, not a fall. He’s too good (and smart) a filmmaker to flame out so soon. The talent and the intelligence is there, and neither of those virtues are hampered by indulgence or ego. Yep, Nope is a dud, but it’s a handsome and meticulously crafted one. If it were sloppy, that’s when I’d start to get scared.

2 thoughts on “NOPE (Movie Review)

  1. Nope was his best film to me. None of his characters in any of his movies are fleshed out. And Us was his worst film. It made no sense whatsoever.

    1. I thought GET OUT was brilliant and US was nearly so, but I can definitely understand someone being frustrated with US. With NOPE, I wasn’t so much frustrated as just bored. It never grabbed me, unfortunately, but I’m glad it worked for you (as it seems to for most people).

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