Directed by Jordan Peele — Screenplay by Jordan Peele.
With Get Out and Us, Jordan Peele’s name became synonymous with the social-horror genre. A master of horror on the rise, who is still building his oeuvre, Peele’s films as a director thus far have felt like event films, to me. Get Out was a masterpiece and one of the best films of the 2010s, and Us was a fantastic horror film that I think is exceptionally rewatchable, rewarding, and thought-provoking. He didn’t land all of his big ideas with Us, but it was still one of my favorite films of 2019. I absolutely loved it. So, when his third outing as a director was announced and revealed to be a sci-fi horror flick starring two of my favorite actors of the 2010s in Daniel Kaluuya, re-teaming with Peele after Get Out, and Steven Yeun, who made his name known with The Walking Dead but whose best performance can be seen in Lee Chang-dong’s masterpiece Burning, my expectations reached a fever pitch. So, does NOPE work? In a word, yep.
Jordan Peele’s NOPE follows the Haywood siblings, Otis Jr. (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (played by KeKe Palmer), as they try to keep their family’s ranch intact. Their father (played by Keith David) had trained his horses to be able to appear in film and television, but, after he dies due to being hit in the eye by mysterious debris falling out of the sky, Otis Jr. is unable to work in Hollywood as seamlessly as their father did. So, to pay the bills, he temporarily starts to sell his horses to a neighboring Western theme park, whose owner is a former child actor (“Jupe,” played by Steven Yeun). One night, Otis Jr. sees something in the sky that he is unable to explain away, so he decides to try and capture it on film to prove its existence and sell the footage to rebuild his family ranch.
With Get Out and Us, Peele made his name as a horror filmmaker with his finger on the pulse of America, as those films are thematically rich, thought-provoking, and feature a lot of social commentary. NOPE still feels like a Jordan Peele movie, as he knows just how to insert cultural observations without them getting in the way of the final product (and it is also as funny as those previous films are in moments), but it isn’t exactly like what he’s done before. This feels more like Jordan Peele’s summer blockbuster spectacle by way of the sci-fi and horror genres. Although it mostly just takes place in two locations, this is definitely Peele’s biggest and most visually ambitious film thanks in large part to cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, and the sometimes nightmarish set-pieces, which are often very much reliant on visual effects. There is also a character — an animal — in the film that is brought to life by way of motion capture.
As one of the new school masters of horror, Peele’s first two films have seen him being compared to several different filmmakers, and there tend to be some noticeable inspirations. With NOPE, I was reminded especially of Spielberg masterpieces like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but also some of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. This definitely feels like Jordan Peele’s spin on Shyamalan’s Signs. And yet, it must be said, that this is still a very original — and ‘distinctly Peele’ — film.
As mentioned, Peele’s films have often been packed with social commentary, and Peele has also had a lot on his mind with NOPE. The film is particularly concerned with how animals have been treated or even exploited by filmmakers and showmen throughout entertainment history. How some people in the entertainment industry have profited off animal exploitation and not been able to control the animal. This is seen in a truly horrifying recurring flashback scene in which Gordy, a trained chimpanzee, snaps and brutally kills or maims several humans on the set of the late 90s sitcom that the chimpanzee previously starred in. On top of that, the main characters in NOPE are the children of a man who was widely known for being a top horse wrangler whose horses worked in the entertainment industry, and, later in the film, it becomes clear that Steven Yeun’s character is determined to profit off the exploitation of an animal with which he hopes to control another creature for the purpose of tapping into human beings’ innate morbid curiosity. And, to add to that, Yeun’s character, who survived Gordy’s attack, is trying to profit off his own trauma, as he has an entire museum dedicated to the tragic on-set incident.
Obviously, there is the title, which, in short, may refer to the sudden response one might have when you see something truly terrifying in the distance. Sometimes it’s just smarter to nope out of a situation and move in the opposite direction, but can you really look away? People are nowadays drawn to that which people should avert their eyes from like crashes, graphic news reports, true crime documentaries, and TikTok and YouTube videos explaining even the most terrifying truths or urban legends. But when threatening creatures gaze back at you, you perhaps shouldn’t look right at them. Like Otis Jr. says at one point, there are rules to how you engage with an animal (and how you treat an animal says a lot about you).
Furthermore, it is also very significant that the film’s main characters are supposed to be descendants of the unnamed jockey in Eadward Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. Film and media students know about Muybridge, but there are so many forgotten contributors throughout entertainment history and Peele’s film seems interested in the individuals who are largely and unfairly forgotten by the industry in spite of their contributions or sacrifice. And in trying to capture the unexplainable on film, our main characters are also trying to reclaim their family legacy and get recognition for their contributions.
With both Get Out and Us, I was impressed with just how confidently made they were. I feel the same way with NOPE. Peele holds his audience in the palm of his hand. He knows when and how to ratchet up tension and fire up the suspense, he has teamed up with a crew that assures that his vision is brought to life with haunting imagery, and he knows exactly what to show, when to show it, and when to remain ambiguous. The Gordy incident really is a perfect example of this. We get a startling glimpse of it to open the film, and then Peele ever so slightly teases us with more as the film goes along until he finally shows us the entire scene from the limited perspective of young Jupe. Some things are kept just out of view. When this is paired with the film’s excellent sound design (not just here but also with the frightening screams that Otis Jr. hears from time to time), you have a scene that is pure nightmare fuel. To add to that, there is a scene that takes place at night on the ranch, when Otis Jr. tries to turn off the lights and he then sees something. This scene is suspenseful and it toys with your expectations in ways I can’t reveal, but I thought it was just terrific.
Get Out and, especially, Us both featured prominent award-worthy central performances, and even though I don’t think any of the performances in NOPE get close to matching Lupita Nyong’o’s masterwork in Us, the central performances in NOPE are all quite good. Daniel Kaluuya’s character is quite reserved but grows as the film goes on and his sibling dynamic with KeKe Palmer’s character was quite believable, and Palmer is absolutely delightful to watch as Otis Jr.’s super energetic little sister. Yeun didn’t get to do as much in this film as I had hoped, but he does deliver a solid performance as this quasi-celebrity who is trying to act like his personal trauma isn’t getting to him.
With all of this having been said, I don’t think NOPE is as great as Get Out or Us were. I think there are some pacing issues here. Although the opening scene is startling and unforgettable, it felt to me, on my first viewing, that the film took a while to truly get going, and, later, I thought that the otherwise quite gripping third act felt a little bit drawn out.
Jordan Peele’s NOPE may be the type of film that challenges your average moviegoer’s expectations, but, to me, Jordan Peele has knocked it out of the park again. Admittedly, I don’t think it is quite as good as Get Out or Us, but Jordan Peele has indeed made another great thought-provoking genre film. NOPE is somewhat funny, very rewarding, it features some really creepy and horrifying set-pieces, and Peele’s interest in moviemaking and cultural history is evident throughout it. On top of that, I think Peele succeeds in re-awakening some sci-fi fears here.
8.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.