Why Jordan Peele's "Nope" is No Ordinary Paranormal Event
Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya and Steven Yeun star in Jordan Peele's sci-fi thriller "Nope."
Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Steven Yeun, Brandon Perea, Michael Wincott and Keith David. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 131 minutes. 14A
⭐⭐⭐½ (out of four)
Fans of writer/director Jordan Peele and sci-fi have long assumed that the title of his UFO-themed new film “Nope” is an acronym for Not of Planet Earth.
True enough, as it turns out, although we must take that on faith rather than verified science since the movie resists giving up its mysteries. Equally valid is the more recent belief that the title refers to the emphatic utterance by the film’s characters, when they choose not to accept or believe what they’re seeing.
Having now viewed “Nope” in all its IMAX-sized glory, I offer a third label option for Peele’s third film, another acronym: No Ordinary Paranormal Event.
A sci-fi thriller shot through with elemental admonition, it celebrates the wonder of staring at spectacle while shuddering at the terror of what’s coming at us.
Peele hat-tips innumerable genre movies, from “Arrival” to “The Wizard of Oz,” but his approach to flying saucer myth-spinning is as fresh as it is confounding.
No reason is given for the unearthly occurrences at a ranch in the hilly desert outside L.A., where the tight-lipped Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his live-wire sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are attempting to maintain the family’s horse rental business following the sudden death of their father, Otis Sr. (Keith David).
Otis Sr. died after being pierced by metal debris that fell from the sky, a tragedy the locals blame on a random aircraft, but OJ, who saw what happened, seems to think it’s more than that. There are weird things happening in the clouds above.
Before Peele fully explores this enigma, he begins his film with a horrific back story, set in 1998, that may or may not have anything to do with the main narrative.
It’s the set of a sitcom called “Gordy’s House,” named for a domesticated chimpanzee who cohabits with humans. We meet Gordy moments after he has ferociously turned on his co-stars, leaving blood and bodies in his wake.
My read on this scene is that it’s a sly homage by Peele to the “Dawn of Man” opener in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” making a similar leap from primal enlightenment to modern befuddlement. But it’s tantalizingly open to interpretation, including the thought that nature, once violated, always exacts revenge.
There’s one clear through-line from the Gordy story to the UFO saga: a survivor of the chimp attack, child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (played by Steven Yeun as an adult), now runs a Wild West theme park called Jupiter’s Claim, which is not far from the Haywood ranch. Ricky has also seen strange things in the sky and he’s attempting to turn them into a profitable tourist venture.
The Gordy part of “Nope” is so compelling, it threatens to overwhelm that UFO saga, which meanders more than it motors as it heads toward a blockbuster finale that takes full advantage of the IMAX lensing by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (“Dunkirk,” “Tenet”).
Peele lards in the characters of a goofy tech salesman (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled cinematographer (Michael Wincott, conjuring the ghost of Robert Shaw from “Jaws”).
Their rather shambolic plan is to capture “impossible” video footage of the UFO in action, which OJ and Emerald hope to sell to Oprah Winfrey for big bucks to keep their Haywood’s Hollywood Horses company afloat.
The firm leases horses to filmmakers, with OJ and Emerald assisting as on-set wranglers. We learn there’s a direct link to Hollywood history: the great-great-grandfather of the siblings was the Black jockey seen in history’s first moving celluloid images: “The moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game,” Emerald observes.
That’s a narrative thread that Peele chooses not to fully untangle, preferring enigma to the more overt racial messages of his earlier films “Get Out” and “Us.” And it certainly works: imperfect as it is, “Nope” is his first film that makes me want to see it again immediately, to parse its many clues and symbols.
In truth, there’s no great message in “Nope,” apart from sardonically noting the folly of humanity’s fascination with cheap spectacle.
Instead Peele prompts the dread realization that there are more dangers in the natural world than we can comprehend and that even clouds might be out to get us. 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)