Jordan Peele Aims to Reinvent the Horror Blockbuster with ‘Nope’

If there’s one thing Jordan Peele is going to do, it’s disturb my peace.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker has catapulted to the top of Hollywood’s A-list by blending mind-bending horror with biting social commentary. His debut Get Out shone a light on the latent racism beneath polite white liberalist society. Us – a film I enjoyed but didn’t feel smart enough to understand – deploys the grotesque to examine American privilege and how we hide or ignore our collective failings. Few mainstream filmmakers can match Peele’s ambition. 

In that spirit, Nope is unlike anything Peele has delivered yet. OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) is a Hollywood horse wrangler maintaining his father’s ranch six months after his mysterious death. OJ’s younger sister Em (Keke Palmer), a fast-talking, aspirational, well, everything, helps him while she tries to pursue, well, everything. After bearing witness to some strange activities at night, OJ and Em try to capture video footage so they can sell it online and use the money to save the ranch and kickstart their lives. 

Nope finds Peele stretching his creative muscles. He largely departs from the cerebral mind-games of his previous work for a straight-up, wide-eyed, horror-laced spectacle. The film is a blockbuster of the old sense, where the images and sounds swallow you up with their magnitude. Peele draws inspiration from the early masters, most notably Steven Spielberg. As Spielberg did with Jaws, Peele wrings out puddles of existential dread from the unknowable beast in the skies above the California desert. He toys with what you think is coming and snatches any comfort away with cutting, nerve-shaking brutality. The film’s atmosphere sizzles with foreboding despair, with genuine comedic moments offering some breathing room. It’s a tricky balance, but Peele masters it with his strongest direction to date.

Daniel Kaluuya in Nope (Courtesy: Universal Pictures)

When Peele unveils the monster hidden behind the clouds and flash-in-the-pan shots, your jaw will drop. Hollywood has imagined extraterrestrial life for generations, but Peele’s interpretation is unlike anything I’ve seen before. He transforms an initially muted design into something even the word “alien” fails to capture. It’s strange, extraordinary, beautiful, and terrifying. It’s something you have to see on the largest screen imaginable to comprehend the scale of Peele’s accomplishment.

Peele’s modern take on the monster blockbuster still leaves some room for his trademark commentary. He has always centered Black people in his horror stories and granted them the agency they’ve historically never had. In Nope, Peele digs deeper into the limits of Black self-preservation. For us, one of the thrills of watching scary films is reacting in disbelief when a character walks toward the danger. In your mind, you’re thinking, “Nope, I’m minding my business.” The Haywood siblings have the same inclination, and Nope’s funniest moments lean into that. 

Steven Yuen in Nope (Courtesy: Universal Pictures)

But, OJ and Em understand what’s at stake by not taking the bait. If they can capture this mysterious being, they’ll be rich. They’ll save the farm from financial ruin. They won’t have to deal with demeaning clients who barely regard them as people. Perhaps Em will find the glory she’s desperately seeking. In the face of that promise, what’s the cost of some film equipment and some crazy inflatable arm-flailing tube men? A lot, as it turns out, but Peele makes the motivations plain, even as you still shake your head saying “Nope” as the Haywoods charge headfirst.

Peele’s impressive ambitions don’t mean every choice in Nope lands. His attempt to bridge the Haywoods’ story with that of Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), a carnival owner and former child star, doesn’t work. Even if it makes thematic sense, Peele doesn’t fully thread the needle for Jupe’s story to feel necessary. (You could cut most of his scenes, and it wouldn’t make a difference, even though one provides the film’s biggest jump scare.) Peele could’ve dialed up the Haywoods’ relationship with Hollywood and how Black contributions have, and continue to be, discounted. It’s a dangling thematic thread – borne from The Horse in Motion cabinet cards that predate the motion picture – that he never resolves.

Keke Palmer in Nope (Courtesy: Universal Pictures)

It’s hard to compete with a giant extraterrestrial, but the cast of Nope does pull focus. Keke Palmer is a charisma machine, brightening every scene with her irrepressible spirit and sharp comedic timing. Rather than just being comic fodder, Peele throws heftier emotional material her way, and Palmer exceeds the challenge. She is genuinely affecting as Em tries to comprehend a world that no longer makes sense. Daniel Kaluuya has a less showy role than he had in Get Out, but he plays OJ’s astute stoicism and heroism well. Brandon Perea’s role as tech salesman Angel is comic fodder, but he makes a strong impression.

With Nope, Jordan Peele proves that he is a filmmaker unafraid to take big swings. He pushes himself to explore how he can work within, or upend, the conventions of horror. In his first big-screen spectacle, Peele succeeds in crafting an engaging tale about commoditizing the unknown, even at the risk of one’s life. It’ll be a challenge for some, and Peele doesn’t help by stuffing the film with one too many ideas. The challenge is half the fun, though. You can trust that Peele will at least deliver a memorable movie experience

And disturb my peace; he will always disturb my peace. And that’s fine.

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