Nope (2022) Nope (2022) ***

     My favorite Arthur Conan Doyle story isn’t one of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Nor does it feature Professor Challenger, discoverer of lost worlds turned pitchman for the spiritualism that his creator embraced in his later years. It isn’t even one of Doyle’s famous ghost stories, like “The Captain of the Polestar,” or one of the surprisingly vicious tales of revenge in approximately the Edgar Allan Poe mode that sparsely dot the author’s oeuvre— think “The New Catacomb” or “The Case of Lady Sannox.” No, my favorite Arthur Conan Doyle story is “The Horror of the Heights,” an almost proto-Lovecraftian blend of science fiction and flat-out horror published on the eve of the First World War, in which an aviator striving to set a new altitude record discovers in the skies above 40,000 feet an entire ecosystem of weird, diaphanous-bodied organisms kept aloft on the incessant winds. Inevitably, some of those organisms are terrifying predators. I have no idea whether Jordan Peele has ever read “The Horror of the Heights,” but it was the first thing I thought of once I realized where Nope, the latest product of Peele’s third career as a writer and director of exceedingly odd horror movies, was actually going. Nope’s advertising campaign sold it as a darker take on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but that’s not what this film is at all. Although it is technically a UFO story, Nope’s unidentified flying object is a living, airborne creature much less readily explicable than any extraterrestrial starship. And while the thing might indeed have come from some other planet, the movie’s protagonists have no way of testing that hypothesis, and we never find out one way or the other.

     Chief among those protagonists is Otis Haywood Jr.— but call him O.J. (Daniel Kaluuya, of Get Out)— son of the Otis Haywood (Keith David, from They Live and The Seventh Son) who founded Haywood’s Hollywood Horses. For some 40 years, Haywood’s Hollywood Horses has been providing trained steeds to the motion picture industry, but the family’s ties to the cinema go back much further even than that. Otis Sr.’s great-great-grandfather, Alistair, was the black jockey riding the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s very first set of Zoopraxiscope plates, making him quite literally the original movie star. (In reality, that rider’s name is completely lost to history. It was, however, recorded that the horse’s name was Annie G. Jordan Peele and I leave you to draw your own conclusions about that.) Even so, Haywood’s firm has fallen on pretty hard times of late, what with cowboys, knights, and charioteers all being equally passé at the moment, and the studios preferring to shift work from unionized animal handlers to non-unionized digital effects shops wherever possible. And then one day, while Haywood and son are out exercising their white stallion, Ghost, in the training arena of their Agua Dulce ranch, the old man is killed in the freakiest of freak accidents. The two Otises hear what sounds like a chorus of human voices screaming in the sky far above them, after which a brief torrent of tiny debris rains down upon the ranch. Otis Sr., looking up in search of some clue to the baffling phenomenon, catches a falling nickel straight in the eye, penetrating all the way to the center of his brain as efficiently as a small-caliber bullet. Everyone connected to the bizarre tragedy figures there must have been some kind of cabin-breach accident aboard a passing airliner, but no confirmation of that theory ever emerges from the news media.

     In the aftermath, O.J. and his flaky little sister, Emerald (Animal’s Keke Palmer), have a business to run and a ranch to save, although they’re at absolute loggerheads over how to go about either project. The sad fact is that neither of Otis Haywood’s children is really cut out to do what the old man did. O.J. may know everything there is to know about breeding, raising, and training horses, but there isn’t a scintilla of salesman’s hustle to be found anywhere in his makeup. Emerald, meanwhile, knows nothing but hustle, only she can’t make a two-minute presentation on behalf of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses without wandering off-script to plug her Etsy store, her freelance stunt cycling, or her ostensible singing career. The closest thing to a lifeline for the company that either sibling has managed to find is their neighbor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, of Mayhem). A former child sitcom star whose television career ended in lurid catastrophe (the trained chimpanzee who was the real lead actor on Park’s show went berserk in the middle of taping an episode, and savaged the entire human cast save Ricky himself before he was put down by a security guard’s bullet), Park has parleyed his residual fame into a new gig as the proprietor of Jupiter’s Claim, a cheesy little Wild West theme park in the same canyon as the Haywood ranch, and over the past six months, he’s bought no fewer than ten horses from O.J. Indeed, he’d like to buy the whole ranch, and Emerald, for her part, doesn’t see much reason why he shouldn’t. O.J. won’t hear of it, though, hell-bent as he is on preserving their father’s legacy as one of the few successful black entrepreneurs in Hollywood.

     That’s about where things stand on the night when O.J. first sees the UFO. Once again he’s in the training arena with Ghost, brooding over the crowd noises filtering up the canyon from Jupiter’s Claim, when he notices the floodlights at Park’s park browning out. The same thing happens a moment later to the indicator lights atop the power pylons marching along the ridge to O.J.’s left, each set of lights dimming and recovering in turn as if the source of the electrical disturbance were traveling in the direction of the Haywood house. Finally, the power fails at the house itself, and O.J. catches a glimpse of… Well, frankly he has no idea what the hell it is. Indeed, while talking to Emerald afterward, he can’t even honestly claim that he saw anything at all. All he got was a vague impression of something big and fast, scudding in virtual silence through the clouds overhead. Even that is enough, though, to set Emerald’s sensitively attuned get-rich-quick instincts abuzz. The following morning, she convinces her brother that this is the chance they’ve been waiting for ever since Dad died, and that solid, incontrovertible evidence of the thing in the sky over their ranch will be worth a big enough fortune to solve all of their material problems.

     Obviously the Haywoods will first have to acquire the means to capture such evidence, and in the process of doing that, they also acquire some unexpected allies. The first of those is Angel Torres (American Insurrection’s Brandon Perea), the technician from Fry’s Electronics who installs their new video surveillance system. Emerald tries to keep the purpose of the equipment a secret from him, but Angel is a devoted viewer of that pox upon American intellectual life, “Ancient Aliens,” and he leaps at once to the correct conclusion when his customers instruct him to set up the cameras so that they’re all pointed skyward. Torres surreptitiously rigs it so that he can tap into the Haywoods’ camera feed remotely, and thus it is that he not only witnesses the next round of strange goings on at the ranch, but also observes something even weirder in the seemingly uneventful and boring footage from the following morning. You’d never notice it in person, or even reviewing the camera feed at real-time playback speed, but in fast forward it becomes plainly evident that a particular small cumulus cloud hasn’t budged an inch in hours from its position over one of the ridges overlooking the ranch. O.J. and Emerald are annoyed at first with Angel’s snooping when he races over to share his discovery, but quickly realize that he’s tipped them off to just the sort of evidence they were hoping to record.

     Of course, any UFOlogist worth his salt could tell you about a hundred comparable weather anomalies, so what the Haywoods really need is a clear shot of whatever is inside the strangely immobile cloud. That’s where their second ally, maverick cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, from Alien Resurrection and Curtains), comes in. O.J. knows Holst from a music video shoot that he and one of his horses got fired from recently, and although the prickly old grouch does not respond well to the ham-handed pitch that Emerald makes to him over the phone one morning, he eventually comes around to the idea that something meriting his attention is indeed going on at the Haywood ranch. What’s more, he becomes convinced that the effort to document whatever it is deserves his time and talent strongly enough that he’s prepared to forego any kind of compensation until the desired footage is in the can.

     What changes Holst’s mind is a confused and confusing story out of Agua Dulce a few days after Emerald’s initial phone call; something very bad has happened at Jupiter’s Claim. By this point, O.J. has seen enough of his odd airborne visitor to suspect that it might not be an extraterrestrial spacecraft at all, but rather some manner of living organism, and events at the theme park add even more support to that theory. It turns out that the reason why Ricky Park has been buying so many Haywood horses lately is because he’s been using them in an attraction that he calls the Star Lasso Experience. Park knows about the UFO, you see, and just like O.J. and Emerald, he’s been trying to make bank on it. Every two weeks or so, in front of a crowd of premium-paying customers, Park has been releasing horses into a special amphitheater built on the edge of Jupiter’s Claim, and thereby tempting the flying whatsit into putting in an appearance. The way it’s supposed to work is that the UFO emerges from its cloud, levitates the horse up into itself, and then departs as enigmatically as it came. Park doesn’t seem to trouble himself overmuch about what happens to the animals after that. But this time, in an eerie recapitulation of the simian rampage on Ricky’s old TV show, the UFO ignores the horse, and instead sucks up Park, his family, and as many of the hired hands and spectators as it can catch! The media cover the event as a wild weather tragedy, and an abnormally powerful thunderstorm, accompanied by plenty of flash flooding, did indeed break out in the midst of the UFO’s attack on Jupiter’s Claim. But Holst spots enough holes in the story as reported on the TV news to connect it with the Haywood girl’s cryptic maundering the other day about getting “the impossible shot.” The cameraman gets back in touch with Emerald and O.J., and soon he, they, and even Angel Torres are collaborating on a plan to lure the UFO into the open, capture it on film, and maybe even destroy it, should it come to that.

     The first hour of Nope is excruciatingly dull. Don’t get me wrong— I do understand what Jordan Peele was aiming for. Like Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he wanted to establish a clear picture of his protagonists’ lives before leaping headlong into the disruption to them caused by the UFO, and he sought to deepen the sense of place by making a movie that starts off as laconic and taciturn as the hero in a stereotypical Hollywood Western. In practice, though, Peele’s approach leaves poor Daniel Kaluuya with so little to do during the first and second acts that the Wild West signifier he reminds me of most is not Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but a cigar store’s wooden Indian. Some actors can indeed build a compelling performance out of nothing more than a grunt here, a scowl there, and a whole lot of gazing at the horizon with a faintly pained expression, but Kaluuya evidently isn’t one of them. Meanwhile, the glacial pace that Nope maintains until O.J.’s first truly close encounter with the UFO sabotages what would otherwise by the film’s best feature, its steadfast refusal to explain itself. Every seemingly disconnected thing that we see during that interminable first hour— Otis Sr.’s baffling death, Gordy the chimp’s bloody-pawed rampage, Ricky Park’s inability to talk about the incident except through the intermediary of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch poking grim fun at it, even a briefly glimpsed, almost abstract image of what appears to be an upholstered tunnel— eventually fits together, but the pieces are so long in assembling that the viewer is apt to lose interest in each of them before the matching slot presents itself.

     Once the second hour comes around, however, the turnabout is truly extraordinary. Although O.J. remains a man of few words, he wakes up abruptly once he realizes that the UFO is in some sense an animal (which is to say, something that he understands by both instinct and experience), and Kaluuya’s considerable acting ability wakes up along with him. The supporting players cease to be a gaggle of comic grotesques, and come into focus as believable if still eccentric people. The enigmas that Nope has been piling up since the biblical quote (Nahum 3:6— “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle” in the New King James translation that Peele uses here) that serves as the movie’s epigram begin resolving not merely themselves, but each other as well, more often than not without a single word of exposition as such. For those who do manage to maintain their grip on all the various bits of seemingly disembodied weirdness that comprise Nope’s first half, the second offers one “Oh! Now I get it!” moment after another until almost everything fits together into a loosely connected but elegant whole.

     The odd element out is Gordy the chimp. It isn’t that he doesn’t fit— indeed, he’s a vital component of Nope’s narrative machinery, both textual and subtextual. It’s more that he never seems like quite the right tool for any of the jobs he’s been given, so that it’s hard to come out of this movie without asking, for one reason or another, “Okay, but why an ape?” In any case, the salient point about Gordy is that everyone involved in making his old sitcom, from the network reps down to Ricky Park, ultimately failed to appreciate that he was a powerful and potentially dangerous animal. They saw him as something predictable, something controllable, maybe even nothing more than one more actor, subject to the same pressures and motivations as his human castmates. Furthermore, they lost track of the crucial difference between the real chimpanzee with which they worked and the fictional one with which the characters on “Gordy’s Home” lived. Park grows up to make both of the same mistakes with the UFO, proving that however much he’s dwelled on and exploited the harrowing events at the studio that day, he still doesn’t understand what happened. He fools himself into treating the creature as a fellow conspirator in separating the rubes from their money, and forgets that the bullshit spiel he delivers every other Saturday to the Star Lasso Experience ticketholders is something that he personally made up. The parallels between Ricky’s two tragedies are part of a broader metanarrative about spectacle, artifice, and the seductive predictability of the unreal, which sits rather unsteadily atop Nope despite its obvious timeliness and relevance in a world increasingly beset by conspiracy theories that are also fascist movements that are also mass-market wellness scams. And if Gordy’s position at the fulcrum of that metanarrative seems even wobblier, that may be because he originally sprang from a completely different source than the rest of the film— a nightmare that Peele reported to his Twitter followers all the way back in 2014: “Dreamt that a baby chimp attacked some people then ran to me and hugged me all scared. I woke up with tears streaming down my face.” I would not be a bit surprised if Peele had spent most of the next seven years trying futilely to build one project or another around that image before finally saying, “fuck it,” and dropping it into Nope regardless of how the inclusion wrinkled the fabric of the film.

     But to return now to “The Horror of the Heights,” I did agonize a bit over whether or not to reveal the Nope UFO’s true nature, because it absolutely is supposed to be a mind-blowing surprise. What finally decided me in favor of giving it away was that it’s also a titanic bait-and-switch— maybe big enough to prejudice viewers who came for the movie the ad campaign was selling against the movie they actually got. And that would be a shame, because Nope is a kind of monster movie that we really don’t see often enough, in which the monster itself defies easy categorization, and the effort to deal with it requires original research on the protagonists’ parts. Assuming that the Nope monster really is supposed to be of extraterrestrial origin, the makers of this film are to be commended for devising the most alien alien I’ve seen in years. Even “Stan” and “Oliver” from Arrival look downright familiar beside the aspect that this thing reveals once O.J. and his companions get it good and mad. But at the same time, the creature’s behavior seems perfectly logical and understandable once its basic nature as a predatory animal of discernable but limited intelligence is recognized. And the weakness that it reveals in the end? That’s sure to raise a chorus of “Yeah, that checks out” from everyone who’s ever had a pet that wouldn’t stop trying to eat inedible things.



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