A black screen. Sounds from a sitcom: peppy line readings, canned laughter. Then… crashing objects, thumps and grunts. Screams rise sharply and stop abruptly. An image comes into focus: a blood-smeared chimp. It sits on a set amid human corpses. The APPLAUSE sign is lit but the banks of chairs are empty. Welcome to Jordan Peele's Nope...
It's a killer opening, strange and disquieting. And the weirdness is only just beginning. In the very next scene, set on a Californian ranch encircled by mountains, an older and younger man are training a horse when strange noises fill the valley. The older man slumps on the horse. Has he been shot? Heart attack? A key, of all things, sticks out of the stallion’s bloodied flank.
The action cuts to half a year later and we learn that the younger man is sombre, taciturn OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya). The older man, dead these past six months, was his father, Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David). They are, along with OJ’s chatty younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), Haywood Hollywood Horses, providing well-wrangled beasts to screen productions large and small. In fact, Emerald and OJ are the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the Black man riding a horse in the Muybridge clip, the first series of photographs put in sequential order to create a moving image. The jockey’s name, say the siblings, was Alastair E. Haywood (he’s historically credited as G. Domm, and the clip is titled Sallie Gardner At A Gallop), and though he was the first movie star, stuntman and animal wrangler, he’s been erased from history.
OJ and Emerald won’t be similarly erased. Realising that something very odd and extremely scary is happening in the isolated gulch they inhabit, they set out to record it in order to secure not so much fame as their name. If you’ve not seen the trailers, you’d best stop reading here. If you have, you’ll know it’s UFO-related matters that are at hand, with the siblings, aided by electronics guy Angel (Brandon Perea) and Hollywood cameraman Antlers (Michael Wincott, now as craggy as he is gravelly) setting out to capture definitive proof. “All that shit online is fake,” says OJ. What he wants is “the Oprah shot.”
Working on a scale far grander than those in Get Out and Us, writer/director Jordan Peele is here looking to the skies – and to Steven Spielberg, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind a big influence. Though set in one sun-blasted valley with just a handful of characters (also key is Steven Yeun’s ex-child star Ricky Park, who performed on the ’90s sitcom that opens the movie and now runs a tourist-attraction Old West town), Nope employs increasingly ambitious set-pieces built around impressively integrated effects. It’s shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema, no stranger to scale having photographed Ad Astra and Christopher Nolan’s last three movies, including, of course, another space picture, Interstellar. He shoots on IMAX and 65mm to give us Oprah shots of colossal parched landscapes and vast, star-studded skies.
The action builds slowly, masterfully, all glimpsed shadows in clouds and the kind of uncanny, unnerving images that Peele does so well: a pig on a rooftop, a blood-spattered plimsoll balanced impossibly on its heel, blood raining from the sky. Sound comes and goes, with the sudden silences that smother the valley proving even more terrifying than the scratchy, quavering score with its insectoid clicks and stabs of strings, or the constant chirrup of cicadas that scuffs and scrapes at viewers’ brains. “Nope”, “Nah”, “No” say the characters on numerous occasions, and you’ll be nodding in agreement.
As with Us, the themes here are less explicit, coherent and fully integrated than they were in Get Out. But that’s OK, because what’s swirling like the dust clouds whipped up by alien activity is fascinating: the spectacle-isation and erasure of Black people, and how being invaded is nothing new for people of colour. Also present is the rebuilding of the relationship between Emerald and OJ, as the former finally steps out of the shadows of the male Haywoods. We also get some interesting melding of genres – science fiction and horror, obviously, but also the kind of western adventures with which Hollywood for so long celebrated a time of genocide in the name of ‘civilisation’.
And then, after all the build-up, one of the characters says, “It’s heeeere!” (a nod to Spielberg, surely, given he produced Poltergeist) and the final act delivers on spectacle, big time, after so much suspense. Some of the narrative’s established rules prove to be flaky but that’s nit-picking. This is an original IP event movie full of wonderment, dread and – even if you’ve seen the second trailer – surprises. It’s a thrilled “Yup!” for Nope.