In the remote California desert, a horse rancher ventures out to his stable late at night to find out why the lights and sprinklers keep turning themselves on. As he goes to the switch to shut them off, a small, human-shaped being comes around the corner and starts moving toward him from the darkness, making strange clicking noises. It’s then joined by a second one, emerging from a stall. Does our rancher look for a weapon or flee as fast as he can? No, he takes out his phone and starts filming them. You can justly chalk this up as yet another character in a horror movie making a stupid decision, but it’s also something that more than a few of us would do. It’s emblematic of Nope, Jordan Peele’s science-fiction and Western-tinged third movie. I’m not sure what it all means, but it’s something to see.
The aforementioned rancher is Otis “O.J.” Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya), proud owner of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, the only Black-owned business that trains and supplies those animals to movie and TV productions. He takes over the company after his dad (Keith David) is killed freakishly by a rain of metal objects on their property. That’s only the start of the weirdness — some months later, while chasing after a horse that has bolted, he sees something moving in the sky that’s too fast and too quiet to be an aircraft. He and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) immediately conclude that it’s an alien ship and determine to get what they call “the Oprah shot,” film footage that conclusively proves the existence of extraterrestrial life. They’re joined by a Hollywood cinematographer named Antlers (Michael Wincott) and Angel (Brandon Perea), a Fry’s Electronics salesman who installs cameras on the ranch.
The people here are heedless of their own safety, let alone the future of life on Earth. They’re obsessed with shooting the footage so that they can become rich and famous. The same goes for Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), the nearby theme park owner who beats the Haywoods to discovering the aliens. (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work out so well for him.) This film is as concerned with photography as Peele’s Get Out, and one of the best things about it is the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema, who shot Ad Astra and Christopher Nolan’s last three movies. In contrast to the brightly lit Get Out, this movie has many scenes with Black actors moving around at night. It takes a particular touch to photograph Black subjects — Caucasian skin tones tend to reflect light, while Black skin tends to absorb it. Too many film schools train cinematographers to light white people, and for decades, the industry standard was a photograph of a white woman. Here, van Hoytema never loses the facial features of these actors as they operate in the poor light of the ranch. The script holds a neat touch as well, as Antlers hears that the alien ship tends to disrupt electrical power, so he brings along a hand-cranked analog camera to film.
The ship itself is something to see all by itself. It initially appears as a flying disc much like we’ve seen in other alien-invasion films, and Kaluuya, who makes something very funny out of a character who says very little, has a sidesplittingly understated reaction to seeing the thing hovering over his house and dropping torrents of blood on it. (Yep, he says the word, “Nope.”) During the climax, though, the saucer takes on terrifying and beautiful shapes as it comes after the Haywoods and their friends, while Angel and O.J. both take clever measures to make sure the ship can’t beam them up without some damage. More than either of Jordan Peele’s previous features, this one demands to be seen on the big screen.
It’s still early, but this filmmaker has become one of the most vital in world cinema. When you hear of a “Jordan Peele film,” you know what you’re getting, and part of that is not knowing what you’re getting. Even if Us had been about a white family, it still would have been different from other home-invasion films. The same goes for Nope, which offers a compellingly odd and funny take on movies about space aliens and a great canvas for a director whose capacious imagination demands it.
Starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer. Written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R.