Jordan Peele does to the sky with Nope what Steven Spielberg did to the water with Jaws. The writer-director’s latest genre exercise takes advantage of boundless horizons and explores soaring ambitions to craft a terrifying and insightful rumination on fame and the hunt for perfection. Tantalizing at every turn and finely honing in on its mystery, Nope is one of the most invigorating pieces of science fiction in recent years and sees a master of his craft delivering a spectacle where you can’t avert your gaze.
Trauma and notoriety are ultimately what fuel Peele’s latest film. Centered around two siblings, OJ and Emerald Haywood (played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, respectively), who have gone on separate paths in life and now find themselves reunited six months after their father’s (Keith David) passing, begin noticing strange occurrences at their ranch. Inheriting his father’s horse ranch that is employed by studios requiring horses for filming, OJ has been slowly selling off his horses to make ends meet. His plan is to buy them back from Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) – a child star who has since become the owner of a rural carnival attraction called Jupiter’s Claim – once he gets the money back somehow.
The strange occurrences become more and more prominent, to the point where the Haywoods begin to suspect they might have the opportunity for fame and fortune if they can prove that what they think is in the sky is really there. Loading their place with security cameras and backup cameras, installed by the local Fry’s employee Angel (Brandon Perea), the family finds themselves in a race against the clock to become famous before people realize what’s really going on at their ranch.
A lot of what makes Nope work so well is its commitment to the mystery. Where Jaws quickly establishes its antagonist, Peele works hard to keep slowly focusing in on the mystery, developing characters as they attempt to perfect their ascent to fame. Fear is in the unknown and Nope is all about hammering around that until something plausible takes shape. Comparisons to Jaws are easy with Nope (there are a decent amount of scenes and characters that translate to that film) but Peele becomes less concerned with terrifying audiences with what they can’t see and lean into the horror of what’s right in front of them.
This divergence results in a film that feels slightly less ambitious than 2019’s Us but less messy as well. It’s the middle point between Get Out and Us, where almost every detail matters, but the film is still reaching out of its comfort zone and attempting to attain something uniquely horrifying. It’s less tightly wound than Peele’s first film, but as it moves forward it takes with it the pieces of the puzzle needed.
One of those pieces is Nope’s reflection on trauma. Ricky’s character is a former child star who witnessed a horrific incident on the set of his sitcom back in the 1990s. A huge moment for him where all anyone could do was talk about his show; he has since lived out his days running Jupiter’s Claim to entertain tourists and locals. It’s the washed-up child star story that Hollywood churns out regularly, but Ricky brushes up against it again and finds himself enraptured by the ascent to fame despite its potential cost.
Then there’s OJ and his father’s untimely passing. A freak accident that kills him before his very eyes, OJ also brushes up against trauma again and sees it as a possible means of escape from his financial troubles. There’s a fascination with fame in the face of harm that provides Nope with frequently frightening setpieces that would leave most people walking away if provided the same situation. But Peele does an excellent job illustrating that desire for notoriety as all-consuming, so even when characters utter “Nope” when they see something terrifying, there’s still an acceptance that it will be faced and confronted.
It’s the characters that ultimately strengthen Nope and maintain a balance of levity and terror. Peele continues to refine injecting comedy into horror without sacrificing one for the other or turning a single character into a walking joke machine (see: Lil Rel Howery in Get Out). Kaluuya and Palmer are incredible actors whose chemistry on screen as siblings is palpable from the beginning. They’re also excellent at comedic timing even in moments coated in dread. It’s that feeling that Peele gave with Get Out where the movie’s horror is kicking into overdrive but still needs people to have a shred of themselves left in incredulous situations. You don’t just lose yourself to the spectacle, you react to it.
Nope also sees the return of Michael Abels providing an eerie score that lends itself to the mystery at hand while slowly ratcheting up the tension. The usual inclusion of a great licensed soundtrack combined with Abels’ ability to take any scene and amplify it with his compositions has always been one of Peele’s greatest weapons. This time around he also has frequent Christopher Nolan collaborator Hoyte Van Hoytema lensing Nope, and it’s as astounding as you’d think. For a movie spent fixating on the skyline, it’s Van Hoytema’s ability to present scale from a grounded perspective that elevates Nope and keeps its horrors in plain sight. There’s not a lot of gray area within the film, but Van Hoytema manages to fixate on the importance within a sea of possibilities.
Everything in Peele’s latest film feels like a fine-tuning of lessons learned from Us – a movie that was both funny and horrifying but also swung for the fences in a way that disregarded the audience. It was a fantastic movie for that very reason, but Nope sees Peele paring down some of the scales while still leveraging the desire for spectacle. Which works with a movie reflecting on the desire for perfection in order to sway an audience. It’s Peele proving again that he is a master at his craft, working within genre conventions to provide unique experiences that are shaped by his love of cinema. Nope delivers an astounding package that wraps itself up neatly while providing new ways to be terrified of the world around us.