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Nope review: Jordan Peele offers up an ambitious sci-fi horror

Peele’s latest sci-fi horror tackles people’s addiction to sensationalism with a Western flair

Dark-skinned Black Man wearing an overage hoodie sits on brown horse
(Image: © Universal )

Our Verdict

Nope doesn’t eclipse Peele’s previous work in Get Out or Us, but it’s still a cinematically rich, perfectly cast and solidly entertaining movie that'll generate multiple opinions.

For

  • Alternating comedy and horror tones make for a wild ride
  • Incredible visuals and captivating soundscape
  • Kaluuya and Palmer have chemistry

Against

  • Plot points work better in isolation
  • Some sequences are too long and snap the tension
  • Uneven character development underserves the allegory

Nope, reunites writer/director Jordan Peele with the stoically charismatic Daniel Kaluuya for an ambitious project that lives at the intersection of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and The Outer Limits. In perhaps his most polarizing project to date, Peele puts the logic-defying risks people take to "capture the moment" and feed society’s obsession the mysterious front and center. It’s dark, twisted and tilts at windmills full throttle. 

Nope follows siblings Otis Junior (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) as OJ struggles to preserve the family horse farm outside Los Angeles. When strange things begin happening in the sky above their ranch, Em convinces her brother they should capture what he thinks is a UFO on film and get rich. What follows starts out as a quietly menacing sci-fi morphs into an increasingly bizarre Western thrill ride in pursuit of proof of the impossible.

OJ and Em Haywood are at odds with their relationship to Hollywood and, occasionally, each other. OJ’s been raised to embrace being in the background on movie sets. He’s shy and ill-suited to being in the spotlight. Em, who’s only nominally interested in the family business, sees their legacy as unsung Hollywood royalty (opens in new tab) as her "in" to chase her own Hollywood dreams. Their father’s horrific, untimely death forces OJ to turn to his more gregarious sister for help assuming his father’s mantle despite being groomed as the heir apparent. 

Nope’s non-linear style acts as a constant barrier to digging into the sibling dynamic in a straightforward fashion. But Kaluuya and Palmer’s deliberately opposing energy does a great job showcasing a loving brother/sister relationship that’s at turns, low-key combative and exasperating in the way only siblings with unresolved issues can be. Kaluuya’s understated portrayal offers a steadying contrast to Palmer’s bombastic vibe that’s two parts Hollywood razmataz and one part needy younger sibling. 

For those expecting Peele to frame his narrative in the "Black experience," prepare to investigate what that means. Peele works to normalize interactions involving Black people. Allowing OJ and Em to speak in quips and rely on shorthand leads to not only the titular catchphrase but authentically inserts the non-verbal cues often a trademark of conversation between Black people. It's all family, so don’t blink or you may miss moments that add necessary nuance and dimension to their dynamic as well as the climax of the movie. 

Relying on inference, however, isn’t always the best decision when many of Nope's larger themes revolve around wanting to take this journey with them. Especially after the Haywoods cross paths with a former child star, Ricky "Jupe" Park  (Steve Yeun) and a Fry's employee, Angel Torres (The OA’s Brandon Perea ). 

Ricky runs a family theme park, but his real claim to fame is surviving a harrowing incident on a sitcom set. He banks his family’s success on being able to capitalize on people’s lurid interest in the macabre. His subplot is a cautionary tale about how unaddressed trauma might tempt someone to take in an effort to make sense of the inexplicably frightening. 

Angel Torres, a nosy technician and Ancient Aliens true believer, inserts himself into the Haywood’s scheme after realizing the surveillance system he sets up at the ranch is meant to monitor the sky. Torres works as both comic relief and the specter of the intrusive general public. He gets caught up in the hype and wants to know more…right up until things get really real. But the more enmeshed in the danger, the less he seems to know how to disentangle himself. 

Again, Peele infers more than he interrogates these supporting character's personalities or motivations. Thankfully both Yeun and Perea bring an off-kilter energy that mesh well with the rest of the Nope cast.  

Peele has a much firmer grasp on the psychotic storyline about a flying alien craft haunting the skies. It’s well developed, extremely creepy, menacing and monstrous. The transition between the varied perspectives does add levels to the overall world-building. So these underdeveloped connections would’ve been best served if more richly integrated with one another while posing, or answering, the question: "are we alone out here and if not, what does the UFO want with us" in the second act. 

Nope takes some big narrative swings aided by phenomenal photography, a masterfully crafted soundscape and engaging, grounded performances that hold up even as everything falls over the edge of the bizarre into an out-and-out showdown with the unimaginable. On one level, leaving a big question mark over everyone's head works in service of the dense allegory. On the other, it feels like a missed opportunity to lure viewers deeper into the both the intimate story unfolding about the unbreakable connection between these siblings and into the metaphor about the dangers of wallowing in spectacle at the expense of all else.

Although Peele’s follow-up to Get Out and Us is just as thematically rich, the third act isn't quite as cohesive, leaving its narrative about the sacrifice and risks taken for fame slightly underserved. The movie drags in ways that snap the building tension at exactly the wrong moment. It happens enough to spotlight the film's flaws in execution, but never enough to detract from rounding out into a solidly entertaining movie. Besides, when the central premise revolves around wallowing in spectacle, maybe walking away feeling like you’ve only barely skimmed the surface and don’t really know what’s important to the people when something horrifically sensational happens to them is the point. 

So despite Nope's shortcomings, Peele demonstrates — once again — that he’s got a deft hand at blending the ridiculous, the unnerving and the out and out horrific into a striking reminder to be wary about looking too deeply into the abyss.

Nope premieres exclusively in movie theaters, July 22. 

Ro Moore
Ro Moore

Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.