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OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), wearing an orange The Scorpion King hoodie, riding a horse toward the camera in Nope Image: Universal Pictures

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Jordan Peele’s Nope brings chills and thrills, but it’s all empty air

His alien-invasion movie Nope moves away from racial metaphor, but lacks a solid center to replace it

About halfway through Nope — Jordan Peele’s sci-fi Western horror follow-up to Us and Get Out, centered around two Black siblings training horses for Hollywood projects — Emerald (Keke Palmer) explains to her curt brother OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) why she lives such a disappointed life. Their father Otis (Keith David) promised her a horse of her own, but instead brought OJ in on training him for work on The Scorpion King, as a father-son project. Ever since then, she’s only been nominally interested in the family business.

As she tells her story, the lens tightens around Emerald’s face while tears stream down her cheeks. OJ sits, tight-jawed, aware of his sister’s anguish but unable to emotionally engage with her. The scene captures the siblings’ broad beats, but its deployment so late in the film keeps it from landing with the force Peele probably hoped for. It’s a recurring issue throughout Nope.

Maybe that running lack of impact has to do with Peele’s unwillingness to let Nope tell a story beyond winking references. Maybe it’s because he’s uninterested in exploring the inner lives of his characters, who largely coast on repetitive punchlines and cloying sentimentality. But the biggest surprise of the tight-lipped Nope is that it’s Jordan Peele’s weakest film.

[Ed. note: Setup spoilers ahead for Nope.]

OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya), Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), and Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) standing in a parched field in Nope Image: Universal Pictures

Emerald and OJ are, as one character backhandedly calls them, “Hollywood royalty.” They’re descendants of the largely forgotten Black man riding a horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, purportedly the first film in history. Like the horses they train, the siblings live in the background of the movie business. That territory doesn’t really bother the quiet, closed-off OJ. But it’s partly why Emerald is so captivated with breaking into Hollywood. She doesn’t want to be erased like her forefather, or like the other Black creatives who’ve inhabited Hollywood for decades.

Peele’s script should let the audience in on feeling her desire. There’s a justness to her frustration and hope that should prompt a swelling of the heart, or at least a rooting interest. But her rapid-fire pitch to a film crew about her artistic passions flies by so quickly that the audience can barely hold on. Who is Emerald, apart from being a classic showbiz grifter? Peele is only moderately interested in the answer to that question.

He has greater control in building out the monster component of Nope, though it’s also messy. The simplistic plot first maneuvers through tragedy: Small objects mysteriously tear through the sky, striking and killing OJ and Emerald’s father in the opening scene. From their dad, the pair inherit a ranch sunk deep in debt. They begin selling horses to local Western-themed amusement park owner Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who survived a murderous chimp rampage on his television show in the 1990s. On the Haywood ranch, a series of strange occurrences follows the rain of coins and keys: The power zaps out, horses turn wild and sprint into the night, a cacophony of screams amid a visceral soundscape fills the brushland.

When a shocked OJ spots a UFO zipping across the sky, he and Emerald concoct a plan to film the object and use the footage to get themselves rich and possibly famous. Initially, the UFO’s intentions appear unclear: Is it a friend, a foe, or something unknowable? OJ only knows not to look directly at the ship, which it takes as aggression or interest — a major hang-up, considering that the siblings want to film the craft.

Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), wearing a cowboy outfit and holding up his right hand, in Nope Image: Universal Pictures

It’s important to consider the interest Nope takes in the vapidity of stardom and the machine-grinding ways in which Hollywood reduces creative spirits to shadows of themselves. Jupe surrounds himself with souvenirs from his traumatic television career. The characters, in spite of the danger, can’t help but look at the UFO, because they feel the need to take pictures of it like fans seeking selfies with celebrities. Even a TMZ photographer arrives at the ranch willing to risk his life for a photo. The whole movie is waiting for Peele to propose an incisive vantage on that heavy-handed totemic component, beyond wielding it to one-note ends.

Nope does have its flights of entertainment. The first half is genuinely a fun ride with plenty of gags, as Peele slowly pulls comedy and horror from the same well. The frustration with this alien-invasion story doesn’t reside in the script not providing easy answers. Instead, the obfuscations and unanswered questions are assets. The light details allow Peele to play in a big sandbox of references, from Fire in the Sky to Buck and the Preacher, Saturday Night Live, and a wide gamut of Steven Spielberg’s filmography.

The freedom Peele affords himself allows him to switch the tone and mood on a dime. In one particularly eerie close-encounter scene set in a stable, cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema uses framing and dark lighting to foster an edge-of-your-seat dread. The tension is punctured when OJ says the film’s title, sharply dropping the horror elements in search of laughs.

a wide overhead shot of a man riding a horse down a desert road in Nope Image: Universal Pictures

Nope’s larger issue lies in the ways in which Peele’s script perpetually stops short of adding up all the moving parts into a whole. It feels as though Peele is stuck between trying to craft an entertaining blockbuster monster movie and wanting to carve out greater thematic depth from his fascinating premise. That first impulse makes Nope one of his more approachable films, in terms of its humor and the things it leaves open for interpretation. The latter leaves the burden to Palmer and Kaluuya to create richer interior lives for their characters than Peele can provide. Both actors can sell a sight gag with the best of them, especially Kaluuya, with his deadpan face. And both actors have a real attachment to the people they’re playing, even when they’re left retooling the dialogue’s repetitive beats. Brandon Perea provides further heaps of enjoyment as a geeky IT guy who’s also left underdeveloped as a mere comedic foil.

The film’s unwieldiness could be excused if it weren’t so bloated. The narrative is split into individual chapters that destroy the pacing, particularly in the final half hour. A set-piece where OJ and Emerald bait the UFO closer to their cameras appropriately involves inflatable tube men — no pun intended, but it’s as elongated and overstretched as they are. Peele leans on wish-fulfilling moments that make little logical sense, even within the framework of this movie. The climactic sequence is muted by uneven dialogue through radio chatter, and through the late insertion of an eccentric yet brooding cinematographer character (Michael Wincott) with barely any emotional attachment for the audience. It’s another instance of an attempted swing at a bigger thematic punch that never quite lands because it’s so narrow and surface level.

It would be too much to call Nope a bad movie. Even in Peele’s lack of precision, plenty of good qualities lurk underneath the knottier shortcomings. But this horror flick doesn’t rise to the levels of Get Out or Us, either. It isn’t because in this case, Peele isn’t trying to teach white people to understand the full scope and feeling of racism. It’s because Nope is an idea more than a story. It’s a collection of individually captivating scenes, as opposed to an intriguing whole. It’s a handsome picture, but Peele is far too impressed with its handsomeness to work on populating it with fully felt characters. It might enthrall audiences, and it might frighten them, but it’ll struggle to stay with them after the credits start to roll.

Nope opens in theaters on July 22.

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