Nope isn’t a horror movie in the purest sense, but it contains one of the scariest sequences of the year so far – one that tops anything from Get Out in sheer nerve-fraying tension. The scene is unnecessary and borderline irrelevant to the plot, but it’s such a creepy, compelling horror short unto itself that the movie is better for its inclusion. There’s something about it that’s symbolic of Nope as a whole: sometimes confused, but gripping in the moment.
When their father (Keith David) dies in a mysterious accident, siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood inherit the family business: a ranch that specializes in providing horses for Hollywood. After a botched gig at an L.A. studio, the Haywoods face the prospect of going bankrupt and losing the ranch. But just as all seems lost, OJ catches a glimpse of a U.F.O. above the property, and the two siblings form a plan to capture it on film and get rich in the process, enlisting the services of renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott). Meanwhile, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star and the proprietor of a local family theme park, has his own designs on profiting off the extraterrestrial.
In Nope’s first half, director Jordan Peele displays a true showman’s understanding of suspense, skillfully building up the U.F.O. by revealing it neither too much nor too little. The Haywoods’ run-ins with the craft first consist of brief glimpses, but gradually escalate to nail-biting close encounters. It’s all but given that the invaders aren’t the classic race of little green men, but Nope still creates an original, visually distinct invader alien that plays with the audience’s sci-fi expectations.
It also maintains a dry, believably human sense of humor that never sacrifices the sense of danger; thanks in no small part to its able cast. Kaluuya and Palmer make a likably mismatched pair of leads: him stoic and deadpan, her bubbly and expressive; but Yeun nearly steals the movie as the darkly funny Ricky, who uses an affable persona to repress his deeply traumatic past. Wincott brings his reliably gravelly presence to Holst, but the role is rarely more than functional.
Though Nope is confident in its execution, it’s less sure about what it wants to say. Its aesthetics deliberately and subversively evoke Western cinema, contrasting Jupe’s tacky theme park with the authenticity of the Haywoods’ ranch; but the choice doesn’t amount to much. The movie’s disparate themes – Western mythology, U.F.O. culture, the self-referential ode to filmmaking – never quite add up, but the mere fact that Nope has something on its mind gives it some extra oomph; while its focus on story saves it from collapsing the way Us did.
Nope’s finale starts off strong, cleverly firing the many Chekov’s guns from its first act, but gets sillier and sloppier as it progresses. The impressive special effects eventually become numbing: the more we see of the alien threat, the less awe-inspiring it becomes. And the final actions of one character in particular are perplexing and inorganic, a naked attempt to raise the stakes that instead distracts from them. These issues might prevent Nope from becoming a classic, but they do little to detract from its entertainment value. Nope has its moments of shaky logic, as well as full-on plot holes, but its assured direction clinches it as a good time at the movies.