We already know that Jordan Peele is a horror master, that is settled. But while his first feature film bridged horror with elements of science fiction to bust open the horror genre, Nope, secures his spot in the annals of sci-fi greatness too. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Steven Yeun, and Keith David, Nope is somehow the most absurd and imaginative take on extraterrestrials and extremely grounded in its characters’ choices at the same time.
Written and directed by Peele, Nope centers on OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) Haywood, siblings and heirs to Haywood Hollywood Horses, a horse wrangling business for commercials and TV that came from their family’s connection to the first man captured in moving pictures. Left to take over the ranch from his father, OJ is having a rough go at it. Not the best when it comes to talking to people, he’s taken to selling his horses to his neighbor in a lonely gulch of Inland California, Jupe (Steven Yeun), the owner of Jupiter’s Claim, a wild west-themed amusement park. When the horse begins to act up and the power begins to mysteriously go out, OJ looks to the sky and discovers a revelatory site that changes the little gulch forever.
Like every other Peele outing, this one is better left as unspoiled as possible. Everything I’ve listed above can be inferred from the trailer, and that’s just about where I’ll stay in describing what happens in the film. But, to put it simply. NOPE is a sci-fi epic with horror notes that reminds me why I love the genre. In fact, it’s clear that Peele loves the genre, its tropes, its conventions, breaking them, and going as big as he can. Ultimately, NOPE is a huge swing for the proverbial fences. Peele manages to toss in everything and the kitchen sink to rain down on his audience and leave you fascinated with the scale and scope of his vision.
NOPE hits common sci-fi notes by nodding to the greats that came before (much like US, in that regard), but never feels like retreading explored territory. By setting up scenes that audiences are familiar with and then choosing to zig when we think he’s going to zag, Peele effectively keeps you engaged and on the edge of your seat throughout. While this is due to the humor that is the foundation of the script, it also comes to play in the stunning effects work, cast chemistry, but most importantly in the character decisions.
For the humor, Peele manages to get belly laughs from the crowd without sacrificing tension or intensity along the way. Driven by situational moments, the comedy of the film feels like a natural exchange versus plugged-in one-liners. This allows the audience to stay immersed in the characters and scenes.
Additionally, the effects work, for as grand as it is, feels highly practical (giant thing in the sky notwithstanding). This is a feat that has become rare for a film of such an epic of scale. The physical moments like crashes and stunts never feel like rag dolls. Instead, each confrontation comes with thought and grounded moments as well. And yet, for all of its grounded moments, NOPE is a spectacle backed up by story. It’s loud, it’s large, and it’s an adventure fit for the word “epic.”
But the action moments and comedy only work because of the casts’ amazing chemistry. Kaluuya and Palmer feel like real siblings. They grief each other, love each other, and have their own moments of in-jokes that allude to something greater. Additionally, the connection that the Haywoods form with Angel (Brandon Perea), the local electronic’s store helper turner alien hunter, is even more fun than their own.
The way Palmer, Kaluuya, and Perea play off of one another never feels forced. When they’re exhausted with one another, dependent, or scared for one another, everything reads as a natural progression relationship instead of forced comradery. The same can be said for Yeun’s Jupe, which is a character best left unpacked in a movie theater.
Finally, the reason NOPE excels is that the characters make smart decisions, learn from bad situations, and put everything into practice. There are multiple moments where characters “do the thing” you’re about to yell at them to do. Or, they exchange commentary on choices being made. One stark example is at the beginning of the third act when Em tries to run from the house and instructs Angel to do the same. To which Angel responds “We’re only alive because we stayed in the house.” It’s a moment of reflection and conversation that shows that each choice is thought through. The intelligence of its characters is one of the many reasons NOPE manages to stand apart from others in the genre, sure. But the truth is that Peele has crafted something so unique and unexpected, and to be honest so damn weird, that it needs no comparison.
While I could point out one story element from the opening that wraps around in a way that feels incomplete, or that the flashbacks add a little too much exposition, the truth is, those small flaws don’t hinder any of the epic scale that Peele is going for. Loose threads and all, NOPE is proof of Peele’s genre mastery. When all is said and done and the credits roll, NOPE is what sci-fi should be. It’s imaginative, kinetic, smart, and one hell of a ride.
- Rating - 9/109/10
NOPE is what sci-fi should be. It’s imaginative, kinetic, smart, and one hell of a ride.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime.