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Would a sane human being
Be intrigued by ever seeing
Odd phenomena beyond the knowledge of us mortal men,
Like a chair moved by air
Or a voice that bids beware
Or strange forces eating horses as first courses now and then?

Blood that drips down walls
Or peculiar moving dolls –
Who would choose to chase the clues of deadly mysteries and such?
We ought to run away,
But we’re curious and stay.
Curiosity, insanity – the difference isn’t much.
______________________

MPA rating: R (mainly for language)

If there was any doubt about Jordan Peele’s skill as a horror director (or director in general), Nope should dispel it. Get Out was an electrifying debut with its potent social commentary, and Us boasted highly impactful scares, even if its underlying mythology made zero sense. Yet I think I prefer Nope over either of them, an entertaining genre mish-mash that recalls Close Encounters of the Third Kind, if the UFOs were not secretly friendly. From the enigmatic trailers, it seemed that Peele wanted to make aliens scary again, and he did, while also subverting a few expectations to great effect.

Reteaming with Peele after Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya plays O.J. Haywood, a horse trainer for film projects, who struggles to maintain his family’s historic business after the bizarre death of his father (Keith David). His sister Em (Keke Palmer) is more interested in schmoozing talent seekers than saving the ranch, but they are both disturbed by the behavior and disappearance of their horses, eventually realizing something in the sky is preying on them. Soon the siblings are collaborating to get certified photographic proof of the dangerous UFO, which is easier said than done, even with the help of jaded electronics employee Angel (Brandon Perea) and grizzled filmmaker Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott).

Nope continues Peele’s winning blend of understated comedy and legit horror, injecting doses of humor among the growing anxiety, most notably the title response when situations are too risky to engage. Unlike so many horror films, the characters largely respond realistically to the strange events they face, though it’s notable that some of them lose that sense of self-preservation in pursuit of fame, strengthening the film’s theme of destructive celebrity. Considering how straight-faced and quiet he is throughout, Kaluuya once more proves his acting talent and is never wooden, while Palmer’s surplus of personality makes her a great familial foil for him. Both Steven Yeun as Jupe Park, the owner of a nearby Western theme park, and Perea as an everyman techie are also standouts, while Wincott’s character adds gravitas but also ends up a little underdeveloped.

Through most of the film, I couldn’t help but feel like the subplot with Yeun seemed out of place, a story of him as a child actor witnessing a violent episode involving a crazed chimp. Indeed, it doesn’t have much to do with the main UFO narrative. In retrospect, it does complement the motifs of spectacle and animal danger, and, going beyond survivor guilt, the idea of survivor confidence explains Park’s unwise actions later on. It’s ultimately another sign that Peele puts a good deal of thought into his film’s themes, down to the final scene, and that he’s interested in more than cheap scares. Of course, there are some expert moments of tension and shock as well (I especially liked how the flying saucer is kept out of view at first, darting between clouds and deadening electronics with the distant menace of the fin in Jaws), but it felt unique that the climax happens in broad daylight.

While Us showed that Peele is not above story missteps, Nope is an ambitious step forward that I look forward to watching again. It’s a creature feature that knows how to balance its looming terror with human foibles and a crowd-pleasing climax, complete with an Akira reference. Us was scarier and Get Out had more to say, but Nope is easily the most entertaining entry in Peele’s filmography so far.

Best line: (Holst) “This dream you’re chasing, where you end up at the top of the mountain, all eyes on you… it’s the dream you never wake up from.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2022 S.G. Liput
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