Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” marked such a thrilling directing debut that the pretty-good things he’s done in the five years since, including “Us” and a full plate of TV shows, have felt somewhat less exciting by comparison. “Nope,” another monosyllabic title, initially seems destined to buck that trend, but turns out to be fun without sustaining its promise from start to finish.
Although the marketing has teased an alien-invasion plot, Peele again seeks to turn some of our expectations on their heads, playfully toying with conventions of the genre. By setting much of the action on a remote horse ranch outside Los Angeles, the writer-director-producer mounts the terror on a smallish family scale, closer to M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” than the grandeur of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” despite those bubbling clouds and foreboding skies.
Said family consists of siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, reuniting with the director) and Emerald (Keke Palmer), who have inherited their father’s ranch and business wrangling horses for Hollywood. But with work having fallen on hard times, OJ begins selling stock to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a carnival-barker sort who runs a nearby tourist spot, strangely situated in the middle of nowhere.
The middle of nowhere, however, is where UFO-type sightings have historically taken place, and things gradually get very, very strange indeed. Emerald and OJ’s search for the truth brings in the local video guy (Brandon Perea, a highly amusing addition), who clearly watches too much programming on cable TV’s crowded aliens-among-us tier, although he’s useful if the goal, as OJ says, is to provide evidence worthy of “Oprah.”
Unlike his talkative sister, OJ is a man of few words (hence the title); fortunately, nobody conveys more with an intense stare than Kaluuya, and “Nope” deftly stokes that suspense, even with a somewhat prolonged stretch to explore family dynamics.
Yet Peele also takes off in a few odd directions, including a weird detour via flashbacks that displays his gift for mixing comedy and horror without necessarily advancing the larger plot.
Peele shrewdly draws from a variety of sources, including sci-fi movies of the 1950s at least in tone, relying on viewers to putty in gaps. Yet the response to this fantastical threat proves fairly mundane, building toward a climactic sequence that’s beautifully shot, terrifically scored (give credit to composer Michael Abels) but less than wholly satisfying. It’s fine not to spell out answers to every question, but Peele leaves the rules hazy and too many loose ends.
For all that, “Nope” is visually striking – particularly those scenes shot in broad daylight – and worthy of a big screen. With its near-interactive balance of horror and disarming laughs, Peele clearly intends to make movies for audiences to communally share.
Still, if “Get Out” refreshed the genre in part by weaving in themes that invited a thoughtful conversation about race and racism, “Nope” is more modest in its intentions in a way that makes it more enjoyable the less you dwell on the details, ultimately feeling quirky without fully paying off its more intriguing ideas.
Is “Nope” worth seeing? Yep. But to the extent “Get Out” offered the complete package in an Oprah-worthy way, this latest journey into the unknown is entertaining without rising to meet those over-the-moon expectations.
“Nope” premieres July 22 in US theaters. It’s rated R.