Nope (2022) Review: Jordan Peele’s Genre Throwback is an Intense, Ambitious Love Letter to the Movies
Even if Nope (2022) is more highly-budgeted, and incidentally more ambitious and harder to decipher, than writer-director Jordan Peele’s previous two films, it’s still just as much a product of the current cultural climate as anything Peele has done. This is especially true in the sense that Peele doesn’t aim so squarely for any kind of political metaphor so much as he takes to task the history of the moving image in its 150-year entirety, gleefully exercising his influences while unabashedly finding the sinister humor within the exploitative, truth-stretching practices that have kept the entertainment industry, and much of American culture, afloat all the while.
Combining the best elements of sci-fi horror, neo-Westerns, and the satire Peele and his comedy partner, Keegan-Michael Key, made an entire brand out of, Nope is as strange of a beast as the unexplained presence that haunts the Californian desert valley of Agua Dulce from up above, and Peele wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s every reason to believe that he’s offering too much of so many things to the point that the film should’ve collapsed in its conceptual phase, but his earned indulgence is balanced by his restraint and his understanding of how much humanity has come to value the immediate gratification of spectacle, even if it means trying (and failing) to tame the untamable.
The latter element is of particular significance to Nope (2022) as Peele filters it through the story of OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer), a pair of black siblings who train horses for Hollywood, and whose ranch has fallen into dire straits since the death of their father (Keith David) under mysterious circumstances. In their father’s absence, their primary source of income is their selling of horses to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor turned carnie who runs a local Western-themed amusement park.
Things gradually go from bad to worse for the Haywoods as they soon find their land playing host to an unidentified flying object, but good to great for audiences eagerly anticipating how Peele intends to meet the high expectations set in place by the success of Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). The key word is “gradually,” as this extraterrestrial phenomenon descends upon its newfound territory and beams up what it can find in a series of tautly paced and utterly suspenseful sequences that bring about obvious, almost on-the-nose parallels to both Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in the best way possible. With cinematographer Hoyte von Hoytema taking a break from his place as Christopher Nolan’s go-to in order to capture the film’s sprawling landscapes, and with composer Michael Abels’ ominous score picking up the rest of the slack in the way the Haywoods’ otherworldly adversary is presented, Nope (2022) is a film that’s as enthralling to look at as it is enticing to look away from.
However, Peele’s debts to a young Steven Spielberg lay just as much in the spaces in between the moments when he promotes his belief in the “less is more” concept both visually and sonically. Even under the guise of a summer popcorn thriller, he grants depth to OJ, Emerald, and even Jupe with the kind of precision that critical acclaim and a Best Original Screenplay Oscar surely indicate, and his ensemble makes a fitting impression with such rewarding material.
True to the film’s contemporary Western landscape, Kaluuya is a cowboy in street clothes, a response to the Black Cowboy subgenre that Peele plants blink-and-you’ll-miss nods to within the confines of the narrative. Playing the quiet, more reserved sibling who witnessed his father’s death firsthand, Kaluuya keeps his feelings buried deep until perilous circumstances call for an emotional response. He creates a nice contrast to his more eccentric and scene-stealing sister played by Palmer, who embodies Em’s increasingly ridiculous ideas for capturing the apparent flying saucer on film, which includes hiring a down-on-his-luck techie (Brandon Perea) and an enigmatic cinematographer (Michael Wincott), for this is the only way to have definitive proof of what they are seeing — and a hefty financial payout to accommodate their efforts. Em is by far and away the optimist of the duo, but her desire for an “Oprah shot” more often than not masks the burden that she, too, feels for inheriting the historically poor hand dealt to her family due to their chosen line of work. It’s by no means a coincidence that Peele frames a first contact story with monetary stakes around a black family.
As Em explains to an indifferent film crew with salesman-like passion, Haywood Hollywood Horses is a family-run business with the secondary purpose of preserving the forgotten legacy of their great-great-great grandfather, a Bahamian jockey whose appearance in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, considered one of the first moving images ever produced, did little to solidify his identity after Muybridge went on to become a filmmaking pioneer all the way back in the 1880s. This is just one of the ingenious bits of historical fiction that Peele conjures up in his exploration of who and what comes at the expense of giving an audience what they want. The other bit of significance is Jupe’s detailing of his childhood experiences as a sitcom star, which came to an abrupt end following a horrific, if preventable, tragedy. Even if these experiences bear little effect on the main plot, they are critical to the commentary Peele swings for, and it’s here that Yeun makes a valuable supporting contribution, delivering some of the film’s darkest and simultaneously funniest dialogue as he contends with his past in an apathetic business by allowing it to be repackaged into something it so clearly isn’t.
That act of repackaging is something that Peele himself seemingly thrives on throughout Nope (2022), but in a way that’s not quite as morbid as it is introspective. This certainly isn’t the first time Peele has explored childhood trauma or historical precedents through the lens of a genre film, just as he’s not the first filmmaker of his caliber to use an alien invasion as an allegory for something more profound. But when we live in an age when tastes have become so simple that mainstream audiences will find endless, if questionable, pleasure in sequel after sequel and remake after remake, that Peele can make something that realigns familiar genre beats from multiple sources into something that is as fresh in its heterogeneity as it is biting in its condemnation of the business he’s fortunate enough to be a part of is an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s only further evidence that his filmography would not work quite as well in a time and place other than right now.
Nope (2022) Plot Summary & Synopsis:
What is Haywood Hollywood Horses?
Nope (2022) begins on the Haywood Hollywood Horses ranch, owned and operated by Otis Hayood, Sr. (David) and his son, Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Kaluuya) Otis, Sr. claims that he is the great-great grandson of the black horse jockey from Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion photographs, which his children eventually use to market themselves as entertainment royalty in order to ensure the success of their fading business. What starts as a normal day for the Haywoods takes a sudden turn when Otis, Sr. dies after being struck by debris that has fallen from the sky without explanation.
In the wake of their father’s death, OJ and his sister, Emerald “Em” Haywood (Palmer), inherit the family business and find themselves on-set for a television commercial with renowned cinematographer Antlers Holst (Wincott). After OJ provides the crew and actors with a safety demonstration for their horse, Lucky, a crew member, having not listened to OJ’s rules, fails to earn Lucky’s respect and causes the horse to act erratically. This effectively delays the shoot and causes the Haywoods to be fired. It’s then that Em, who feels little emotional attachment to the horses or the family business, suggests selling the ranch to Jupiter’s Claim, a nearby Western theme park that has already bought a few of the Haywoods’ horses. Though hesitant, OJ eventually agrees to a meeting with the park’s owner, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Yeun), who discusses with OJ and Em the possibility of an acquisition before showing them memorabilia from his time as a child actor.
What is the “Gordy’s Home Incident”?
Part of Jupe’s memorabilia includes select remnants from his experience on Gordy’s Home, a sitcom in the 1990s starring a trained chimpanzee named Gordy who is adopted by a suburban family. Flashbacks, including one that comprises the opening scene of the film, reveal the horrific turn of events that led to the sitcom’s cancellation despite its success. During a taping of a birthday episode in the show’s second season, a bunch of balloons floated up into the studio’s rafters and popped, causing Gordy to snap and attack his human castmates and crew members. Jupe, having hid under a table while these events unfolded, was one of the few to be spared by the chimp’s uncontrollable rampage. When Gordy, seemingly back to normal and with little recollection of his actions, approached the frightened Jupe and made a friendly gesture toward him, he was shot by Animal Control officers.
Jupe would continue to find modest success as a child star before evolving into a carnival barker as the proprietor of Jupiter’s Claim. In the present, he reveals to OJ and Em that his Gordy’s Home memorabilia is kept in a hidden room in the back of his office, which he charges patrons to view. He explains to them how his success was largely built upon the media coverage surrounding the sitcom, even going so far as to detail a Saturday Night Live sketch that parodied the incident, which featured Scott Wolff as a young Jupe and Chris Kattan as Gordy. Jupe speaks of this sketch with fondness and reverence, clueing the Haywoods, and the audience, into how desensitized Jupe has become to the travesty that would come to define him. Jupiter’s Claim is nothing if not the result of a career born on the back of a nightmare.
How Do the Haywoods Notice the UFO?
Later that night, OJ goes out to his barn after hearing strange noises. While there, he observes three Roswell-esque alien creatures, but quickly discovers that they are just Jupe’s three sons in costume, having been sent to deliver a warning to the Haywoods not to mess with the theme park. Later that night, all the power at the ranch suddenly goes out as OJ sees a strange object similar in shape to a flying saucer barreling through the sky at the same time that one of his horses goes missing.
To prove it is extraterrestrial intelligence, he and Em go to a Fry’s Electronics, where they meet employee Angel (Perea) and discuss taking a video of the alien to sell. They hire Angel to set up a series of cameras on top of the house and elsewhere on the ranch. After setting up the cameras, OJ sets up a decoy horse with a pennant banner tied around it. The UFO approaches and shuts down the ranch surveillance camera. Unfortunately, a praying mantis lands on the lens of the house camera, blocking the view of the ship, and sucking up the decoy. It flies away with the decoy’s pennants dragging out of its maw and hides behind the clouds. Angel notices that one giant cloud in the sky never moves and deduces that this must be where the UFO takes shelter.
What is Jupe’s Plan for the Horses?
Jupe prepares for a show at Jupiter’s Claim featuring one of the Haywoods’ horses, Clover, in a glass box. Jupe explains that they have been regularly putting on this show, in which he uses the horses as bait to lure “something” out of hiding, for the last six months (since Otis, Sr.’s death). Though he doesn’t specify this “something” as an alien, he alludes to it with the Roswell costumes his kids wear and the alien-themed merchandise sold at the park. After introducing his kids and wife, Jupe introduces his Gordy’s Home co-star and first love, Mary Jo Elliot, whom the audience sees in flashback as one of the actresses who was attacked by Gordy the chimp. She is sitting in the audience, her face covered with a veil and noticeably mangled due to the attack.
Jupe is aware that the presence of the UFO shuts down any electrical interference, and thus markets alien-themed merchandise since no one is able to record anything for themselves. Jupe notices the inflatable tube men that line Jupiter’s Claim deflating early, signaling the approach. He awkwardly tells the audience that the “something” is early as it approaches the show arena. With the pennants in tow, the alien begins to suck up everybody from the audience, as well as Ricky and his family.
What Exactly is the UFO?
OJ, who had been watching the show unfold, hesitantly approaches Clover to get her out of there. After loading her into his truck, OJ attempts to drive away, but the alien gives chase, eventually spitting out the decoy horse into the truck’s windshield. OJ realizes the UFO is not the ship, but is actually the alien itself. It’s a predatory creature asserting dominance, but does not eat those who don’t look at it. Utilizing similar methods to those used to train horses, OJ believes they can influence the alien’s behavior to get the footage without being eaten. After a second failed attempt at recording footage of the alien, now dubbed “Jean Jacket” by the Haywoods, they decide to hire Holst for assistance.
Nope (2022) Ending Explained: Do the Haywoods Get Their Proof?
How Do the Haywoods Defeat the UFO?
Holst arrives with an IMAX film camera with a crank reel, all the better to capture the alien without losing footage. OJ and Em raid Jupiter’s Claim, removing batteries from the cars to power the inflatable tube men to lay a path for the alien and the horse. OJ will lure the alien Jean Jacket into their trap while Angel helps Holst to capture the video. During the attack, Holst gets cocky and runs closer to Jean Jacket to capture a better shot. Jean Jacket sucks him up and then heads for Angel. Angel wraps himself up in barbed wire and a tarp, causing Jean Jacket to spit him out. Enraged, Jean Jacket opens up into its fully realized form (a jellyfish-like shape). OJ, on a horse, decides to distract Jean Jacket in the hopes that it will not get Em.
Em flees to Jupiter’s Claim, where she releases a giant helium-filled balloon in Jupe’s likeness to the sky, whose eyes stare straight at Jean Jacket. Em heads over to the Winking Well (a dual wishing well and photo station) and gathers up coins that Jean Jacket spat up to take multiple pictures of the alien eating the Jupe balloon. Em inserts coins and cranks the Winking Well to take photos of the balloon as Jean Jacket approaches it. Jean Jacket sees the human-shaped balloon and devours it. As Jean Jacket returns to its flying saucer form, the high altitude and compression causes the balloon to burst, killing the alien. Em screams out in victory as the last photograph develops, perfectly capturing the fully formed Jean Jacket ensnaring the balloon. In the distance, Em sees OJ on the horse in full cowboy mode.
What’s Next for OJ, Emerald, and Angel?
Nope (2022) ends shortly after, and though the three protagonists manage to survive their encounter with the alien, their ultimate fates, along with that of the footage they capture, is left open-ended. There’s no telling if the Haywood siblings will receive the financial reward they were hoping for, or if their findings will be dismissed by skeptics and ignored by the public. Peele does not offer any explanation, so there’s reason to believe that either outcome is possible, but it’s also worth noting that the government’s response would inevitably come into play, as well. This is especially true given the endless conspiracies surrounding the cover-up of an alien encounter in Roswell, New Mexico in the 1940s. Since the incident at Jupiter’s Claim would invite questions and speculation from those who did not witness it, there’s certainly reason to believe that, even now, the government may not immediately be in favor of the public knowing about extraterrestrial life on Earth. Of course, because of that speculation, a future in which the Haywoods are caught up in a media storm because of their evidence is more than possible, as well, and would be one in which they are able to bring their business back with the proper monetary backing.