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Movie review: 'Nope' is more than meets the eye

In his third film as writer and director, Jordan Peele has made the deepest science-fiction Western ever.

Image of starry night sky, with horse flying eerily into the air, followed by detritus like cups, glasses, and dolls.
Detail from "Nope" theatrical release poster.
Contributed / Universal
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DULUTH — When George Lucas was making the original "Star Wars" movies, he'd occasionally muse aloud about getting back to making personal films after he finished producing blockbusters. Jordan Peele's attitude seems to be, why wait?

"Nope," Peele's third feature film as writer and director, is a popcorn movie about a cowboy and a flying saucer. It's also an allegory, layered with symbolism, about race and representation spanning the entire history of the motion picture as a medium.

Anticipation for "Nope," now playing in several Northland movie theaters, was high. "Get Out" (2017) and "Us" (2019) have made Peele one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation and cemented horror as the defining genre of this uneasy moment in American history.

"Nope" retains enough elements of horror to please fans who come expecting a good scare, but also branches into Westerns and science fiction. Have those two genres ever been so successfully merged? "Cowboys & Aliens"… nope. "Westworld"… closer, but still nope. "Star Wars" space horses stampeding on a Star Destroyer … nope!

Peele's film specifically evokes "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the movie where extraterrestrials manifested a landing pad in Wyoming's wide-open spaces. "Nope" was filmed in L.A. County, where the film's fictional family of ranchers support themselves by training horses for film work.

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Their calling card is that they're descended from the Black man who rode a horse in an Eadweard Muybridge motion study from the dawn of cinema. The reference is a pointed reminder of how people of color have been shunted to the sides of Hollywood stories in general, and Westerns in particular.

"They're heeeeeere," says Brandon Perea, watching the skies and quoting "Poltergeist." Perea plays an electronics technician who gets wrapped into the lives of siblings played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, battling an airborne force that's laid claim to their land.

Although Peele eventually shows his hand, he holds his cards close for much of the movie. "Nope" reveals an auteur's confident control. The camera is steady as a desert butte, with the picture's deliberately discomfiting texture coming from sharp cuts and push-pull pacing.

The first half of "Nope" has an impressionistic flavor, cutting among characters' present lives and painful memories in an evocative collage of surreal scenes. The film recalls David Lynch in Peele's combination of crisp compositions, uncanny details and quirky characters playing it absolutely straight.

Steven Yeun gets the juicy role of an impresario who runs a Western carnival near the siblings' ranch. He's haunted by memories of his past as a child actor in a show that ended under grisly circumstances. The flashback scenes feature the coolest "2001" allusions since "Space Oddity," while actor Terry Notary forms a bridge to "Planet of the Apes."

Although it takes a more experimental tack than Peele's previous productions, this alien movie won't alienate a mainstream audience. Palmer and Kaluuya are instantly appealing, the latter musing on encroaching dread while the former takes care of the talking.

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Peele also draws on some of his now-familiar stylistic hallmarks, including the ominous slowing of a pop song. Pioneered in the "Us" trailer with Luniz' "I Got 5 on It," the device was copied so widely and so quickly that it became a hackneyed genre trope. Nobody does it like Peele, though, and Corey Hart may soon join Kate Bush as an astonished 1980s star back on the pop charts.

The success of that device in "Us" was no accident: Peele appreciates the importance of sound design, which is foundational to his films. That's never been more true than here, where Peele and sound designer Johnnie Burn weave Michael Abels' diverse score into a dynamic soundscape that's all the more effective for its subtlety.

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There's a diegetic reason for "Sunglasses at Night" to slow down: The space invader blocks electrical signals. That applies to cassette decks as well as to skydancers (those floppy, inflatable wavy-arm guys), which our heroes array in formation to track the airborne predator. The conceit gives Peele a wide array of auditory and visual cues to put the audience on edge at every approach of the abductor.

I first drafted this review for a National Critics Institute workshop, with an overnight deadline. I wrote essentially the rave you're reading here, and then I read 14 more reviews, some of which came from colleagues who keyed straight in to the story's larger significance. You can enjoy "Nope" without grasping that, but once you see it, it becomes apparent what a strong statement this movie makes.

Whether you're rewatching "Nope" or catching it for the first time, consider the implications of that Muybridge sequence, and how it relates to the characters' quest to photograph the saucer. Consider the compromises Yuen's character has made, and their consequences. Think about the ranch as the story's setting, not its substance. Watch where all the eyes go, and where they don't. Pay attention to the alien's climactic transformation ... and trust me, you don't need to overthink it.

"Nope" arrives in the summer movie season marking 40 years since the release of "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial." While Peele has created a very different kind of alien encounter, he shares Spielberg's combination of empathy, curiosity, and inventiveness. Viewers who want a nostalgic callback to the "E.T." era can stay home and watch "Stranger Things." Those who want to see the art form advancing should get out and buy a ticket to "Nope."

Related Topics: MOVIES
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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