Film Critic Harlan Jacobson is entertained by Jordan Peele's latest movie "NOPE
In his third film, NOPE, Jordan Peele follows the progression of modern American directors from small, indie filmmaker in their early films -- think Marty Scorsese or Spike Lee – to big budget filmmaking—an estimated $69 million for NOPE. That’s not gargantuan by Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg standards, but it did allow Peele room to have some genre bending fun and tech expansion into outer space.
Our film critic, Harlan Jacobson, has more.
HJ: In NOPE, Jordan Peele is like a kid in the American film genre candy store: he takes big helpings from the Sci-fi adventure yarns of Joe Dante (Gremlins), a little Spielberg adventurism, the Hollywood homage and humor of Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the menacing alien sci-fi film (Old Testament division), and the new-Western genre, the way Chloe Zhao in Riders and Jane Campion in Power of the Dog both took aim at and blew away the mythology of American Marlboro Man Masculinity. In NOPE, most of the cowboys and girls are all fakes, poseurs, some kind of corporate weasels out panning for profit, except for our heroes, of course.
Daniel Kuluuya returns from Us and Get Out as Peele’s alter ego hero named OJ Haywood, heir to a horse training ranch for Hollywood movies, a legacy business started by his late father, Otis Sr. whom OJ honors by keeping the horses in motion. And yes, Peele’s script pokes fun right up front at his given name, OJ, for Otis. Jr. and manages overhead shots following OJ on a bronco rather than inside one. There’s a lot of winking at the audience in NOPE, all okay with me in service to a good time.
Thing is OJ is pursuing an arrangement with a nearby tourist cowboy ranch run by an ex-TV kid show child star named Jupe, the sole survivor of the notorious episode in which Gordy, the title chimpanzee of the kiddie TV show within the backstory, throws a rock’em, sock’em star tantrum that Peele underlines as a revolt of the natural world. Gordy beats the entire cast and crew to death on live kiddie TV — all except for the petrified kid star, Jupe, with whom he is about to share a fist bump that, umm, falls short. It’s a sequence you won’t want to miss, get popcorn. 1:55
Flash forward to grown up Jupe, played by Minari star Steven Yeun, who’s apparently learned nothing from the fist bump that didn’t happen except the wrong thing: business is everything. He’s monetized and set up a dummy cowtown in the California Desert to lure the yahoos out to see the alien spaceship. I admit this is a Peele plot-gimme that is confusing. It’s the same flying saucer that OJ surreptitiously goes to great length to decode behind a stationary cloud that is very hush-hush-- while Jupe is selling tickets. Oh well, it’s the set-up for your basic war of the worlds that follows
Kaluuya plays OJ with one-word taciturnity from the Hollywood’s mythic old West—usually “Nope” -- which grounds his character in the great American western heroes of the 50’s whom I don’t have to name. Point is OJ is the real deal in a timely appropriation of power and place that says we’re here and we’re up to the gig. Hoyte Van Hoytema, Christopher Nolan’s ace cinematographer for Tenet, Interstellar and Dunkirk, and Peele keep the story and color palate mostly midnight blue, black or brown, so it’s often Kaluuya’s white moon eyes looking back at his super vitaminized sister, Emerald, played by Keke Palmer, to answer her, calm her down, or direct her what’s next. 1:29
Emerald has a different agenda than brother OJ’s. In a pretty snazzy bit of writing, Peele makes Emerald a saleswoman with an eye to race and film history when she connects up the nameless black jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 two-second footage of a nameless black jockey on a galloping horse Muybridge's horse and rider to her great, great granddaddy, thus cementing the Haywoods as motion picture royalty in a Hollywood that doesn’t know who they are. Ergo, Emerald wants to cash-in and cash out. She wants to get the alien space craft on film.
Peele sends some characters OJ and Emerald’s way to join the battle with a higher power. There’s the obligatory techno geek nerd, Angel (Brandon Perea), the crazy ex-wildlife cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), who want to capture the spaceship on old school film rather than digital. Everybody’s an artist, it seems, but it’s also true the aliens can read and destroy digital. As they should.
NOPE’s flying saucer is an all-purpose central metaphor. It happens to look suspiciously like a disembodied flying anus where screaming innocents go to die. Peele takes us up and inside, where you really don’t want to go, in a sequence underscored with a soundscape of screaming hell you really don’t want to hear but worthy of what you imagined in Jaws or the Biblical Jonah inside the Whale. Another Peele sequence calling for more popcorn.
With the generality of the Space anus, Peele has earned the same criticism leveled at director Adam McKay for being unfocused or obvious (or both) in Don’t Look Up, last year’s avenging meteor movie. And the knock on Peele in NOPE is that his characters did more with less in his previous films, Us and Get out, which requisitioned the zombie division of the horror film to set loose characters that took middle class white racism and black complicity into the basement, or front yard, for a whupping. Peele is following Hitchcock in making an art thriller meant to make money. While Hitch didn’t want the bosses to think of him as an artist, Peele is dealing from a stronger studio position: You either go with it, or you go home.
Peele hasn’t specifically made a racial critique film, like any of the last number in recent years, from Passing, Ma Rainey’ s Black Bottom, One Night in Miami, or even Denzel Washington’s workup of August Wilson’s Hill District in Fences. More in keeping with The Coens’ Macbeth or like Jeymes Samuels’ The Harder They Falllast year, NOPE has a 99% black cast but isn’t just about blacks occupying white landscape, though it does that. On the one hand it’s a warning to stop exploiting the wild earth, which is color blind but requires a certain minority disposition and cast. On the other, NOPE’s plot follows the lonely Hollywood sci-fi cowboy’s path to victory by strategizing how to come around the side door to combat a malevolent power from above. And it does so with a laugh. :53
That’s a full suitcase and has earned Peele some raves from critics but also a lot of flack for lack of discipline and tone. I went with it, had a great time, it’s summer. Please note this review did not start, employ or end with the one word temptation of Nope or Yup. Remember, “There are two kinds of people in this world,” Clint Eastwood said as the man with no name in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, “those with loaded guns and those who dig.”
I dig Jordan Peele.