SPOILERS AHEAD for Nope. You’ve been warned.
You know what I’m always in the mood for? An amazing alien invasion flick. You know what I haven’t seen in quite a while? An amazing alien invasion flick. Now, of course, you might say, ‘what about A Quiet Place or Arrival or maybe 10 Cloverfield Lane?’ And I would say, sure, they were all fun. But amazing? As in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, kind of jaw-dropping, life-changing kind of amazing?
This brings us to that very flick. Ever since the trailer first premiered, Jordan Peele’s newest work promised an amazing UFO/alien invasion experience. And after Get Out and Us, the idea of Peele taking on aliens was an intriguing and exciting prospect. So the most important question is, did he succeed? Well, as with every movie, the answer depends on whom you talk to.
So the story goes like this: it begins with the laugh track of a 90’s sitcom, which reveals a studio set where something’s gone very, very wrong. The studio audience is gone, and while the “Applause” sign keeps on flashing, we see bodies strewn across the set – and a chimpanzee dressed up for a birthday party and covered in blood.
Then we cut to present day and change locations to meet the main characters – the Haywood family. We see Otis Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), otherwise known as “O.J.” – yeah, you read it right, “O.J.” He’s up before the sunrise to see to the daily chores on their horse ranch, out in the canyon-filled, high-desert area of Agua Dulce, CA. Then we meet Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), who’s already saddled up for a ride.
Then something weird happens. A sudden deluge of debris falls from the sky, all kinds of odd junk. And it falls at such a high speed that it becomes a barrage of dangerous projectiles. While O.J. takes cover, Otis Sr. isn’t so lucky and gets hit. O.J. rushes his dad to the hospital, but it’s too late. As O.J. sits by him, we get a gruesome look at how the debris fatally wounded Otis Sr.
Six months later, we see O.J. bringing one of their horses to a film set to shoot a commercial. There’s definite awkwardness between O.J. and the rest of the mostly white crew. It doesn’t help that O.J.’s a taciturn kinda guy and clearly uncomfortable dealing with people. But then the other half of the business, O.J.’s sister Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer), arrives. She’s very late but makes up for it by showing off her PR skills. She launches into a well-rehearsed speech about Haywood Hollywood Horses and how they’re related to one of the very first movie stars – the black jockey who rode the horse in the 1878 Eadweard Muybridge film.
Everything goes great until one of the crew accidentally spooks the horse with a prop, and the horse nearly kills the star (veteran actress Donna Mills). The Haywoods get fired from the shoot, and we learn that the business is in trouble. Em and O.J. head home and visit their only neighbor out in their remote neck of the woods – a theme park-ish tourist attraction called “Jupiter’s Claim.” It’s an old-time western extravaganza on a carnival budget, run by Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), also known as “Jupe,” and his wife Amber (Wrenn Schmidt). Jupe has an uneasy business relationship with O.J. and Em, as he’s been keeping them afloat financially by buying their horses to use in his show.
Turns out Ricky was a child actor – and his most famous role? That sitcom we saw in the beginning. He was the only survivor of the chimpanzee’s (known as “Gordy”) rampage, and he shows Em and O.J. his collection of memorabilia from the show and the unfortunate incident. While they’re walking around the park, Em checks out one of the attractions, a wishing well called the “Winking Well” because when you look down into it, it takes your picture. Remember that for later.
Back at the ranch that night, O.J. gets the cr*p scared out of him when he hears noises in the barn and sees weird little alien-looking figures peering out at him from behind corners. He does that thing we all do when we see something scary, retreating and going, “Nope. Uh-uh. Nope.” Hence the title. But it turns out that it’s just Jupe’s bratty kids playing a prank, dressed up in the goofy alien costumes they use at the park.
But then, a while later, the power goes out, and even O.J. and Em’s cell phones stop working. O.J. sees a huge, dark shape darting around the sky, diving in and out of the cover of the clouds. It looks like a classic UFO, and he and Em get the idea to try and capture it on video so they can hopefully sell the footage (which they call the “Oprah Shot”) and make some money.
The next day they go shopping at the local big box electronics store and buy a bunch of cameras. The guy who rings them up, Angel (Brandon Perea), tells them they’re gonna need help with the installation. He offers his services in a sort-of desperate way, sharing way too much about his personal life, needing something to do since his actress girlfriend dumped him.
When Angel shows up at the ranch to install the cameras, they discuss UFOs and the government’s release of its UFO report in 2021. Angel says the new, “proper” term of “UAPs” (unidentified aerial phenomena) was coined in order to somehow downplay the whole idea and lull people into some kind of false sense of security. But clearly, it hasn’t worked.
The team sets up their surveillance, and O.J. puts out a decoy horse since the UAPs have been partial to abducting their horses. The UAP comes back that night and goes for the decoy – but unfortunately, the power goes out again. The only camera that still works has a bug on the lens, blocking the view – a spindly praying mantis, which looks like an alien all on its own. The UAP sucks up the decoy horse and the flags attached to it as it flies off.
So then we cut to Jupe, getting ready for his show the next day. Once in the arena, he puts his all into the performance, even though it’s hardly a packed house. Turns out he’s been buying Haywood’s horses to use as bait, and the show is comprised of watching the UAP suck up the horses. Jupe pulls the cover off the clear cage holding Clover, one of O.J.’s favorite horses, and they wait.
The park property has a bunch of “air dancers” around the perimeter – you know, those giant inflatable tube guys that every car dealership has. And when the air dancers suddenly deflate, Jupe realizes the UAP is coming. O.J. is there and watches as the UAP approaches, the flags from the decoy horse still dangling from it as it stirs up a huge vortex of air and dust and sucks up everybody in the arena.
O.J. manages to escape and takes Clover back, putting the horse in his trailer and driving off as fast as he can – but the UAP chases him and rains down another deluge of projectile junk, just like when Otis Sr. died. O.J. nearly gets killed when the decoy horse slams through the truck windshield. And O.J. realizes that the UAP isn’t a ship – it is the alien. It’s eating everything it sucks up and then spits out what it can’t digest. He also somehow realizes that it knows if you’re looking at it – and it will only attack if you’re looking directly at it. So he keeps himself safe by averting his eyes.
Then we cut back to the sitcom massacre, watching the whole thing unfold from Young Jupe’s (Jacob Kim) point of view. The poor kid hides under a table and watches in horror as Gordy attacks the rest of the cast, viciously biting and beating them until they lie motionless. Then Gordy sees Young Jupe under the table and approaches him – but not to attack. Gordy holds out his hand for a fist bump, the gimmick they were known for. But before they can, Gordy gets shot in the head, blood spattering all over the tablecloth and Jupe.
Back in present day, O.J., Em and Angel try to figure out how they’re going to get the Oprah Shot of the UAP when it shuts down everything that runs on electricity or batteries. Em realizes that they need a real director of photography to figure it out. So she calls the DP from the commercial shoot, Antlers Holst (the awesome Michael Wincott, doing his best hippie version of Quint from Jaws), and sells him on the idea of a “documentary” shoot. And they decide to name the UAP “Jean Jacket” after one of their horses. One that Otis Sr. promised Em that she could train and keep for her own but never turned out that way, something she’s still salty about.
Holst shows up with his film cameras, all of which operate by hand cranking instead of using electricity or batteries. And then the crew sets up their operation, stealing the air dancers and batteries to run them from what’s left at Jupiter’s Claim. They set up the air dancers all around the ranch, and then O.J. rides out on Clover. Then suddenly, some random guy on a motorcycle shows up (Devon Graye) with a camera and tells Em he’s there to capture the UAP on video, now that news of the incident at Jupiter’s Claim has hit the media.
Then Jean Jacket attacks, making quick work out of Motorcycle Guy. Em takes his bike and rides away as O.J. lures it away on horseback, and we assume he dies. Holst and Angel start filming – but Holst isn’t happy with his vantage point and runs out to get closer. Of course, that spells his doom as Jean Jacket sucks him up. It almost gets Angel too – but Angel gets lucky when he gets tangled up in a tarp and barbed wire, which Jean Jacket immediately spits out.
Em rides back to Jupiter’s Claim, and Jean Jacket gives chase, revealing its true form – an almost indescribable, Cthulu/jellyfish-looking thing that’s truly terrifying. Em gets a brilliant idea and undoes the ties holding a giant helium float of a cartoony Jupe. She releases the float into the sky, and Jean Jacket goes for it since its fake eyes are looking directly at it.
Em gathers up a bunch of tokens for the Winking Well and waits until Jean Jacket is directly above her to activate the camera, taking a bunch of photos of the alien as it gobbles up the float – and then explodes. Em screams out a victorious battle cry as the Winking Well photos develop, perfectly capturing their Oprah Shot – and then, through a wind full of dust, she sees O.J. sitting on his horse, still alive and looking like the quintessential cowboy. The end.
So what does it all mean? I can’t say for sure. All I can do is relate the experience of watching it. Jordan Peele has a unique way of storytelling, something that’s truly special in this day and age when it seems we’ve seen it all. Nope also shamelessly makes use of its influences, namely Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002). None of which are bad things – but they also don’t guarantee that Nope is a true success.
The flick has a lot of quirks – like its structure, broken up into chapters named after the horses and Gordy. And the frequent flashing back to Gordy’s rampage, which sets itself up like it’s something really important. But all I could really glean from it was the similarity between Gordy and the UAP and how as a species, we humans suffer from a sometimes-deadly addiction to spectacle. People are always out there with their phones, stupidly putting themselves at risk just to get the Oprah Shots of dangerous situations. And maybe that’s all Peele was trying to say with it, but I don’t know – and what’s worse, the flick didn’t move me enough to think on it any deeper than that, which is not a good thing.
Nope does have other things going for it – some real creepy moments, gorgeous cinematography, solid performances, terrific humor and an alien that is truly unlike any other that’s ever been imagined and put on film. But while I know that many critics are hailing Nope as some kind of work of genius, I just can’t get there. For all of its creativity and creepy mood, Nope left me feeling very – meh. It’s not a bad flick at all, but it’s also not one I’m going to remember very well in a month or so.
So I guess if I want that amazing UFO/alien invasion flick, I’m just going to have to pop in my 4K of Close Encounters and keep hoping that someday, someone will deliver that next great UFO/alien experience.
Written and Directed by: Jordan Peele
Release Date: July 22, 2022
Run Time: 2 hr, 10 min
Distributor: Universal Pictures