One of the many horrifying scenes in Jordan Peele’s Nope occurs on the set of a ’90s sitcom, when a performing chimpanzee flies into a frenzy and attacks his castmates. This memory unfolds through the eyes of the child star Ricky Park (played as an adult by Steven Yeun), sheltering in terror in the ravaged room. At one point, his gaze alights on a strange, specific sight: a single shoe, balanced on its heel, pointing straight up in seeming defiance of gravity. It’s a tranquil image in a sea of chaos, so distinctive that Ricky has never forgotten it despite the trauma of the day.
Peele’s film never explains the mysteriously posed shoe; indeed, Nope is not concerned with explaining much. Instead, the focus is on spectacle, and the Herculean emotional and physical tolls that come from witnessing it, or, even worse, trying to capture it on camera. The central object of fascination for Nope’s ensemble is a saucer-shaped unidentified flying object that’s tooling around the hills outside Los Angeles. And yet Peele is not just making an inventive sci-fi thriller. Nope is tinged with the acidic satire that suffused his previous two movies, as Peele examines why the easiest way to process horror these days is to turn it into breathtaking entertainment.
The brother-and-sister leads of Nope are OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer). They claim that they’re the descendants of the jockey who was the subject of The Horse in Motion, the first “moving picture” ever captured by a camera. They own a ranch in Agua Dulce, the dramatic mountain country just beyond Los Angeles that was the backdrop to many a classic Western, and they train horses for film appearances. In short, their entire livelihood depends on the movie business. The cheerfully obnoxious Emerald seems a born performer herself, but OJ is taciturn to a fault, the one true introvert amid the film’s portrayals of spotlight-seeking artists and actors.
Next door to the Haywood ranch is a chintzy amusement park operated by Ricky, who’s still coasting on the notoriety of his childhood sitcom horror, though completely unable to articulate the experience plainly. When asked about the chimpanzee attack, he cheerfully points to a Saturday Night Live parody of the event that “pretty much nailed it.” After spotting the UFO in the sky, he designs a whole live rodeo show around it, trying to conjure the magic of his youthful performances, even though that line of work led him to his darkest day. Ricky is one of Peele’s most compelling creations, a chipper yet vacant spirit who provides a brutal, if indirect, critique of the showbiz machine.
Nope is filled with mesmerizing hangers-on; even though the glitz of Hollywood lurks in the background, the film rarely leaves the echoey terrain of Agua Dulce. Other oddballs include Angel Torres (Brandon Perea), a tech-store clerk who spouts conspiracy theories at OJ and Emerald as he helps them scan the skies for the flying saucer; a gravel-voiced filmmaker named Antlers Holst (an incredible Michael Wincott), forever in search of the perfect shot; and an enigmatic figure in a silver helmet whose introduction late in the action adds a poison-penned exclamation mark to Peele’s already sharp script.
The ensemble is diffuse, and Peele takes his time building out story lines that seem totally unrelated. One could argue that he’s due a little indulgence after the grand success of his films Get Out and Us, both of which were more tautly plotted and had third acts heavy with exposition. But the ambiguity is also justified by the unknowable invasive force at the center of Nope; what unites every character in the film is a desire to transmute it into something entertaining and impressive, to render a scary riddle into a conventional tale of interplanetary visitors. Nope has other ideas, and so does the swooshing saucer hiding in the California clouds.
Only OJ has the presence of mind to flee when confronted with the unknown—he mutters the film’s title to himself under his breath multiple times as a sort of reminder that he doesn’t have to charge into danger. But even he is eventually taken with the allure of capturing the saucer on film. Kaluuya plays that internal turmoil with the simmering intensity that’s made him one of his generation’s most enthralling actors. He’s a perfect muse for Peele, whose widening ambition with every project bucks the Hollywood trend of retreating to the safest artistic territory for the biggest spectacles.