Movie Review: “Nope” (Jordan Peele, USA/Japan 2022)

            Nope (Jordan Peele, USA/Japan 2022) is a film attempting to serve many masters at once. It simultaneously seeks to be a summer blockbuster film and an artistic statement. It simultaneously attempts to re-take a mythology out of one genre into its older genre home while also moving that mythology away from its pre-Christian origins into modern Christianity. It simultaneously attempts to revive the ‘90s-style explosions-and-humor “sci-fi” blockbuster while telling a fundamentally Black story. It even tries to do a Robert Altman trick of telling you it’s about movies and then hiding that ever-after.

            It’s biting off an unbelievable amount—most films don’t even have a mouth this big, let alone the audacity to attempt to use it all—and while it’s able to get its teeth on everything, it isn’t really able to chew them completely.

            The film is ostensibly about an alien abduction. A flying saucer starts making appearances around a Hollywood-adjacent horse farm that rents and trains horses for the film industry, killing hero (and yes, this film is definitive about his hero status—it employs little subtlety) O.J. Haywood’s father, Otis, with a stray coin. Like seemingly every Disney film, we begin with a parent’s death in order to set our hero free from obligations and ensure that he needs to get help from a more unlikely source. The business is failing without Otis, but the flying saucer gives his seemingly-grifting sister an idea: get a photograph the tabloids will pay big bucks to print. But of course the flying saucer turns out to be more dangerous than she imagined.

            Meanwhile, we watch a backstory plot play out—a young Asian boy is in a cheesy (and seemingly abominably unfunny) family sitcom about a family that “adopts” a chimpanzee until one fateful day when balloons frighten the chimpanzee and he reacts with blind rage, killing most of the cast and frightfully harming another in front of the boy’s eyes and then asking the boy what happened to the family.

            That’s a ton of plot to cram into a film, even in the Age of the Super Long Movie. And as a writer, Peele has to be commended for getting through that plot in 130 minutes. However, it’s a novel-level complicated plot that even has a major subplot playing out in flashbacks, and therefore it has a drawback in that it never really decides what point it wants to make.

            We hear about “animal territoriality” repeatedly, it being explicitly suggested as the reason for the chimpanzee’s killing spree, a horse’s reaction to the flying saucer, and the flying saucer’s abductions. But probably ¾ of the film has nothing to do with that theme. That’s fine in a novel or a tv series, but in a film it’s a distraction from the actual point. It’s a minor theme, but it gets dedicated screen time and even a subplot just for itself.

            The film also has a lot to say about Hollywood’s treatment of people. The saucer, with its camera-shaped innards, represents the industry as it swallows people whole, spitting out money and cars (keys, really, but keys are representative) while the blood of its victims rains down on the Haywood home. This aspect of the film is really the one I think works best. Drawing attention to the paucity of Black faces on screen with the somewhat fictionalized story of the jockey from The Horse in Motion, an early motion picture-like work, and the presence of non-white actors in almost every major part in the film (the most noteworthy of whom is the only part of the hero team to die), it leads to the inescapable conclusion that the film is commenting about Hollywood’s treatment of Blacks: “We’ll take your work and swallow you up, but your blood is unclean and, here, just take the money and cars and go away.” I think there’s an excellent film in this part that’s really being buried by Peele’s desire to say more, which, to be fair, might be something he feels is necessary for a “general audience” (i.e., “white people”) to watch a Black story.

            But the first thing in the film is a Bible quote, specifically the old testament god threatening to make a spectacle of killing an entire city because they made a spectacle of their sins. And the last form the ever-shifting flying saucer takes at the end is that of an angel. Nearly every scene in the film has a Christian religious symbol visible. Emerald spends nearly half of the film walking around with a shirt emblazoned with “Jesus lizard.” The third-biggest part in the film is a character named “Angel.” The flying saucer mythology that has always been so intertwined with pre-Christian British fairy lore that Stephen Spielberg’s film on the subject makes more logical sense as one about fairies than as one about aliens until its final moments is overridden by use of Christian symbols and modern horror tropes that are fundamentally based on Christian mythology. The saucer hides as a cloud. Even the saucer’s “weakness” is based on a distinction between the Old Testament, which explicitly says that humans have seen and can see the Christian god, and the New Testament, which explicitly says that humans aren’t capable of seeing it. I think there is precious little room to doubt that Peele’s primary focus is on this theme: the current generation impermissibly revels in the spectacle of sin, which will eventually bring vengeance from on high.

            The scene of Jupe Park explaining what ended his childhood tv stardom is very telling: first, in spite of his trauma, he has a poster celebrating what he calls “the first exploding fist bump” and then he begins the story by asking Emerald, “You haven’t seen the SNL sketch?” and then proceeds to describe not the actual event but the sketch, repeatedly describing Chris Kattan as “a force of nature” but not providing any real details. In fact, he doesn’t even describe in broad strokes what actually happened, which seemingly leaves Emerald still not knowing what actually happened. A child star only processing his own trauma after witnessing a horrific homicidal rampage by promoting a parody of it played for spectacle afterward couldn’t be a clearer metaphorical update to the film’s opening Bible quote.

            Under this interpretation, the flying saucer’s use of a camera is essentially this film saying something the 11th Doctor once said: “And the end comes, as it was always going to, through a video phone!” The TMZ “reporter” who arrives near the end even makes clear that it’s not about self-promotion: he wants the footage available and the spectacle seen even when it harms him.

            There is more than a little bit of “old man yells at cloud” to complaining about younger people’s obsession with spectacle and willingness to engage in sin, but the film does a better-than-average job of making its point here, even if it’s muddied by the presence of other themes.

            Cinematographically, the film is surprisingly quiet for one that goes out of its way to use a cinematographer as a character even though most of the audience would have little idea what one is. It’s mostly full of standard colors and lighting, giving us the usual colors and filters we would expect from a monied Hollywood production. There are a few exceptions: the saucer itself is a wonderful piece of CGI that uses probably the biggest obstacle to most CGI (lacking weight) in its favor, there is a wonderful shot of O.J. chasing down one of his horses that does a phenomenal job of evoking Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, USA 1977) with a subtle lack of sound and white-on-blue color scheme that matches what Roy and Jillian witness at Devil’s Tower, and the blood rain streaking down the Haywood home and kicking up a cloud of red-brown dust around it is absolutely a stunning image.

            The score to the film is excellent, with Michael Abels finding a good balance between unusual, often eerie sounds and the traditional film score one would expect to accompany a ‘90s film spectacle. Similarly, while the diegetic music throughout doesn’t attempt an obvious subversion of the audience the way the scores to Lovecraft Country so brilliantly did in its Black take on horror, it does enough to make it clear we’re dealing with very different people than we were when “The William Tell Overture” was dueling with Deep Purple in Twister (Jan de Bont, USA 1996).

            The acting is universally good, though there are only a few characters with enough depth to give terribly strong performances. Daniel Kaluuya’s lead performance is very much in keeping with the Hollywood silent leading man tradition, but his ability to use his eyes to let the audience know what’s inside makes his quiet in the face of what is mostly a nonstop gamut of emotional pain torturous. Keke Palmer is so remarkably natural in her performance that it hardly even comes across as acting and yet also so powerful that her character feels defined in her first minute on screen even though we know almost nothing about her, which is a remarkable combination. Steven Yeun may be easy to overlook, as he doesn’t have a ton to do outside of his scene explaining the chimpanzee’s rampage, but, wow, does he play that scene.

            Overall, Nope does everything it does at least competently and does much of it well, but its fundamental flaws prevent it being the film it could be. Jordan Peele and Hoyte van Hoytema don’t show off much visual imagination, but there’s nothing wrong with what they are showing. (The latter does also have a strong track record to prove he’s capable of more than he is showing here.) Peele’s celebrity status may be working against him—he walked into auteur territory from seemingly day one in Hollywood and without anyone to tell him no he tried to say too much for one film, which is a shame because he’s very close to making something special. As it is, it’s a fun film that doesn’t quite know what it wants to say, like so much of Hollywood.

Notes

  • I like “O.J.” in orange and “Emerald” in green. It feels like a very inside Hollywood joke but I’m in favor.
  • The Jesus Lizard is apparently a band. I have not heard of it before, and the list of artists citing it as an influence suggests that this band is very not for me. However, Angel immediately seemed to me like someone into those bands.
  • I can’t figure out how I feel about Emerald seeing O.J. at the end. It’s cheesy, but it’s seemingly appropriately cheesy for a film that is so much, “We’re making a ‘90s blow ‘em up movie.” But it’s also so silly I audibly laughed. Then again, how seriously should you be taking a movie where the big monster just got killed by a giant balloon popping?
  • I really wanted to suggest there was some metaphorical meaning to a balloon of a western sheriff being what kills the angel-shaped seemingly-alien. If there is one, I don’t understand it.
  • One thing that I’m wondering about is how much we’re supposed to feel like we know about “Jean Jacket” at the end. O.J. says that it won’t take people who don’t look at it and everyone on the team who doesn’t look at it survives, even when someone immediately next to them gets eaten, but that’s the part with the most evidence. O.J. says “maybe it’s not a ship” but provides no further explanation—seemingly the “cloud” is “the ship,” but this wouldn’t exactly be the first time someone had suggested the idea of a mothership out of which smaller ships fly. O.J. says that the horse statue “really fucked it up,” but could it instead have intentionally held onto the horse to send a message to O.J.? (Could it be a fan of The Godfather???!!!) We just know almost nothing. And what’s going to happen now?
  • The “genius cinematographer” is shooting a commercial? What? Why? On so many levels, why?
  • O.J. punching one of the kids dressed as grey aliens is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It’s totally a reasonable, understandable reaction but so surprising compared to the way such scenes normally play out in film.
  • The most famous alien abduction films this century are probably this one and Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, USA 2002). Both are Christian religious films. The earlier film was highly pilloried, often showing up on lists of the worst films of all time, largely because it was too subtle about its religiosity. Peele was probably more subtle (The main character isn’t a lapsed priest, which should have been a really clear clue to everyone!) and has had more success. That seems like an interesting development, though it could mean a million things.

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