All eyes on me. We live, now more than ever, in an attention economy. If you can’t catch someone’s eye immediately then they’re on to the next. Swiped left, scrolled up, you’re awash in ever expanding sea of content, marooned by whatever the newest outrage or shock is. No longer does the world focus on the work, the craft, it’s all spectacle, all the time. The appetite for attention is voracious and to quell it requires pushing beyond the boundaries of safe and natural. Spectacle for the sake of spectacle can be dangerous, Jordan Peele recognizes that with his third feature, Nope, he just can’t quite push that message through the artifice of his own attention grabbing blockbuster.
OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer), like most of the characters in Nope are craftsmen in the attention economy. Their father (Keith David) started up a ranch, renting out horses for the movies and now, after a freak accident, the Haywood siblings are in charge. OJ is the type to put his head down and work, while Em is the natural born showman but even together they struggle to match the success their father built alone. Perhaps it’s on them, but more likely the entertainment industry has simply moved past the reverence for expertise or safety when churning out their multi-million dollar marvels.
Whatever the reason, Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch is struggling to get by and OJ has been forced to sell some of the steeds to Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yuen), former child star and current operator of western amusement park Jupiter’s Claim. Jupe has his own interesting intertwinement with fame as his career was derailed by an infamous accident on the set of his show Gordy’s Home. In another of the many example in Nope of the dangerous pursuit of spectacle, Jupe starred in a show alongside a monkey who, when startled one day on set seriously maimed his young costar. Nearly two decades later he continues to hunt down his star’s long lost sheen.
Everything changes when a mysterious UFO begins to torment the fine folks of Agua Dulce, California and this collection of star chasers scheme up ways to use it as catapult for their own fame. Chasing attention is the central tension in Peele’s third film. Get Out and Us used horror tropes to amplify fraught social themes and in the process launched the already well known sketch comedian into the stratosphere. Nope however, buries its spectacle skepticism under the very same flash that it openly condemns. An interesting idea, bold in its ambition but ultimately a too at odds with itself to balance.
A lack of satisfying balance does not mean that Nope is totally without merit. Rather Peele seems to be a victim of the sky high expectations his work has set. A more messy thematic experience could have been offset by pure entertainment, but even the laughs and thrills here are inconsistent. Early parts offer moments of humor — especially from Brandon Perea’s electronics store technician, Angel — and the middle third delivers some iconic moments of horror imagery, but between the great moments is a lot of staring at the sky watching for the slightest move of a shadow. With the UFO established fairly early, that cloud gazing does not even provide the tension of paranoia.
Each of the main performances is interesting. Kaluuya grounds film nicely with his composure under pressure throughout and Keke Palmer provides the dynamic energy she brings to every performance, even if Em feels a bit underutilized. I particularly liked Steven Yeun as a sort of washed up huckster who never learned what it was like to live outside the spotlight. Every moment for him is a performance, even when he’s not on the stage and more than anyone, he embodies the ideas Peele is exploring.
All the components of a great Jordan Peele horror are here; striking and scary imagery, great individual performances, a smart central theme. Despite the ingredients, the alchemy is just a bit off. Nope never manages to be as poignant, as urgent nor as enrapturing as any of its director’s previous work. Even the big action conclusion felt as though it dragged on.
While it feels unlikely that Nope will occupy the same revered space as Get Out, its spectacle is still worth seeing. Peele’s is an action thriller that doesn’t meet its own lofty aspirations but one that manages to entertain in spurts regardless. Nope should at the very least be acknowledged for giving us an original blockbuster and a reason to get out to the theaters. 7/10