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REVIEW: ‘Nope’

Is the next great director turning into M. Night Shyamalan?

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• July 25, 2022 1:20 pm

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Everybody is rooting for Jordan Peele, the wonderful sketch comedian who unexpectedly became a superstar behind the camera with the release of his sensational horror comedy Get Out in 2017. The movies need creative types whose upcoming work generates excitement and anticipation, and there aren't many these days; certainly not in comparison with the 1970s, when ordinary filmgoers eagerly awaited the next Coppola, the next Friedkin, the next Woody Allen, the next Fellini and Bergman, the next Mazursky, the next Lumet.

Peele immediately became someone like that for our time. Get Out, which combines take-no-prisoners racial satire with genuine scares and laughs, made a zillion dollars off a $4 million budget and justifiably won Peele an original screenplay Oscar. He followed it up with Us two years later, a beautifully rendered and stunningly acted scary movie about people and their doppelgängers that earned an eyepopping $70 million in its opening weekend.

But unlike Get Out, which had one of the most satisfying concluding scenes in recent film history, Us didn't stick the landing. In its final 20 minutes, Us turns into a conspiracy thriller, in which no one bothers to explain the conspiracy before delivering a confusing twist that doesn't make sense when you first watch it, starts to make sense as you begin thinking about it, and then finally returns to making no sense after you've turned it over in your head a few times. Still, Us is imaginative and eye-catching and its first 90 minutes are pretty spectacular. The Peele bandwagon continued to roll.

Which is why Nope, his third film as writer/producer/director, is such a colossal disappointment. If Get Out is a racial Rosemary's Baby and Us is an upper-middle-class Last House on the Left, Nope is Close Encounters meets Alien. An extraterrestrial entity manifests itself in a remote hilly area—and is not friendly at all.

Plotwise, it reminded me of Snoopy's novel, the one in which Part 1 goes like this: "It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a shot rang out! A door slammed. The maid screamed. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon! While millions of people were starving, the king lived in luxury. Meanwhile, on a small farm in Kansas, a boy was growing up." Then Snoopy types the words "Part 2" and tells us, "In Part 2 I'll tie all of this together." Snoopy never writes Part 2, and Peele never ties all of Nope together.

There's a farm outside Los Angeles whose horses are used in the making of motion pictures. It's run by a sullen and withdrawn Daniel Kaluuya (the star of Get Out and an Oscar winner for Judas and the Black Messiah), who doesn't get much help from his excessively voluble and hyperactive sister played by Keke Palmer. Down the road is a crummy amusement park whose owner—Steven Yeun of Minari and The Walking Dead—keeps buying horses from Kaluuya. When he was a kid in the 1990s, the owner was a sitcom star on a show about a chimp; the movie begins with the chimp going wild on set and killing and maiming his fellow cast members.

Kaluuya and Palmer get a glimpse of an alien ship in the clouds, and she realizes they could make their fortune getting a picture of it. Turns out, Yeun has seen it as well, and he summons a paltry audience for a live show to give them a glimpse of extraterrestrial life. None of this goes well.

On the one hand, there's a lot to unpack here. Nope is about Hollywood, and mythmaking, and imagemaking, and capitalism's foolish efforts to harness and control the wildness of nature. On the other hand, the characters aren't interesting, the movie feels endless, and the only genuinely interesting aspect of it is the sitcom chimp attack. I could have watched a whole movie about that and its aftermath, and that movie would have been more interesting than Nope. Kaluuya, ordinarily one of the most dynamic actors on earth, plays his part so recessively he's like a crater at the center of the movie. Having the story revolve around such a dull figure is a striking conceptual failure for Peele, especially after he wrote such a glorious role for Kaluuya in Get Out—and especially after guiding Lupita Nyong'o through her absolutely staggering lead performance in Us.

I'm still rooting for Peele, but he needs some help. Just as Steven Spielberg lost his way after Jaws and Close Encounters with 1941 and then found renewed focus by collaborating with George Lucas on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Peele could really use a strong producing hand and sounding board who could challenge his more vague ideas and insist he connect them all in a satisfying way. Otherwise he won't be another Spielberg; he'll just be another M. Night Shyamalan, who took off like a rocket but then refused to listen to people who told him his bad ideas were bad and as a result could not deliver on his original promise.

Published under: Movie Reviews