Jordan Peele's Nope starring Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya, and Steven Yeun; Courtesy of Universal Pictures

There’s a scene early on in Jordan Peele’s Nope in which a character sits in the passenger seat of a car, her head leaning against a half-open window, a curl of her hair dangling out. She gazes wearily at a series of colorful sky dancers—those inflatable figures that flail in the wind outside car dealerships—as her car speeds through the California desert. What is it about this simple, everyday image that feels groundbreaking? Why does it make you feel you’re in the hands of a director who possesses a mastery of the medium? How does it compel you to lean forward in your seat, desperate to see whatever is coming next?

That’s the magic of Peele, an expert in crafting wildly original images out of half-familiar parts. That he can do this without relying on intellectual property to get his movies financed makes him a virtual unicorn in our cinematic landscape, but he pulls it off by leaning into the conventions of horror, one of the last creative spaces where originality in cinema is tolerated. In Get Out, his debut film, Peele fashioned from a satisfying horror structure the most incisive racial critique of the last two decades. His follow-up, Us, was more mysterious, invoking Reagan-era politics in its story on the imposed duality of Blackness in America but refusing any clear interpretation of its central allegory. Both offered new ideas and were hugely entertaining. Such things are possible.

Nope ventures even further into Peele’s intellect and away from conventional thrills. The film centers on OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, who also starred in Get Out) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), descendants of the first Black actor to ever appear in a motion picture and present-day proprietors of a ranch that trains horses to appear on the big and small screens. It’s not going well. The recent death of their father (Keith David) has left OJ and Emerald rudderless, and the business is flailing without his leadership. A flying saucer-like object, which appears in the sky above their ranch, seems to hold the solution. It provides no grand answers to life’s mysteries, or at least OJ and Emerald aren’t looking for that. Instead, it represents a step up the economic ladder. They endeavor to capture it on film in the hopes of monetizing the fame that will surely follow.

It’s a fair approach. The simple existence of UFOs doesn’t exactly inspire wonder in audiences these days (the superior 2019 film The Vast of Night addressed this concern by setting its extraterrestrial tale in the 1950s). Peele sees this problem, and even has his characters discuss it, but he doesn’t attempt to solve the issue narratively or visually. The UFO footage in Nope is creatively designed, but underwhelming—at times too familiar and at other times too bizarre to grasp. It recalls the iconography of the 1950s, when little green men from Mars were a stand-in for America’s nuclear anxieties, but there’s a reason those images aren’t considered frightful today. Peele’s strategy is to withhold the alien presence as long as possible, lull viewers into a sense of security, and then hope they are dazzled when he unleashes the full power of his imagination on them. It worked in Jaws. It works less well here. (Likely because it’s 2022.) 

But Peele isn’t aiming for the magic of Steven Spielberg. His goal is the dry, slow-burn power of Stanley Kubrick. There are powerful, unexplained images in Nope that will remove your breath from your body, but the attempts at awe are smothered by a fundamentally clinical approach to plot and themes that keeps the viewer at arm’s length. As OJ and Emerald embark on their little film project, with the help of an electronics expert (Brandon Perea) from a local Best Buy-type store and a master cinematographer (Michael Wincott), it becomes clear Peele is telling a postmodern story about cinema, genre, and race, and that’s before we get to the subplot involving Ricky Park (Steven Yeun). The former child actor was involved in a horrific incident involving an onset chimpanzee, and now buys horses from the Haywoods for use in his low-rent Western theme park. Oh yeah, I guess it’s about animal rights, too.

It’s a lot to take in on a first viewing, as Peele weaves his galaxy-brain media critique into a conventional tale of a bereaved family defending their home from a monstrous threat. It could work, but the balance is off. The film’s heart is clearly in its ideas and not in its people. Even Kaluuya, who is typically compelling even when doing very little, gets sucked into Nope’s meta-powered vortex. He takes an overly stoic approach to his character, leaning into the archetype of the strong, silent cowboy—a movie poster for the Sidney Poitier western Buck and the Preacher is a tip-off—but what was really needed was something charismatic. He seems to want to draw the viewer in, but toward what? There’s little at the center. Palmer fares better as a more enthusiastic, outgoing character, but there’s little specificity in her characterization, and the character itself is wildly underwritten. Strangely, it’s the relatively unknown Perea who proves the breakout here, conjuring a distinct and captivating pathos as the heartbroken retail worker who comes to the aid of the tech-averse siblings. It helps that, as a supporting character, we don’t expect as much depth from him.

It’s intelligent cinema—a rarity at the studio level these days—but sometimes a film can be too smart for its own good, or at least too invested in its ideas and not enough in its story. Nope is certainly not the crowd-pleaser the trailers promised. It’s a dissertation battling a movie, and the dissertation wins. Still, viewers interested in the craft of cinema will find much to linger over, from the spine-tingling night cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema to Michael Abels’ intense, genre-melting score. Likewise, those with an advanced degree in semiotics will have a fine time dissecting its meaning. In an era of dumbed-down blockbusters that exist solely to placate their fanbases, the effort is admirable. The results? Sadly, nope.

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Nope opens in theaters on July 22.