By Evelyn Heis, Film & Tv Editor
It was the end of 2020 when Jordan Peele first teased that he had a film project under wraps, and I, a diehard fan who had spent the last few months in a global lockdown, deprived of a routine, normality, and social interaction, was instantly hooked. I was desperate to sink my teeth into anything that Peele had to offer, for he could do no wrong in my eyes following the incredible successes of Us (2019) and Get Out (2017). And so, I counted down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until NOPE’s release, attempting to put the pieces together of Peele’s mind puzzle based on the short ambiguous clips the trailer had to offer. Having now watched it, however, I can honestly say that I don’t know how to feel about it.
Without giving audiences time to settle into the film, NOPE begins in media res, establishing the film’s eerie and frenzied atmosphere from the get-go. The film commences with a massacre on the film set of a ’90s sitcom, the perpetrator being a chimpanzee animal actor, Gordy, drenched in blood with a birthday hat on. These images, disturbing as they are, don’t last for too long as the narrative quickly switches to the present day, to the Haywood family.
Taking place predominantly at the Haywoods’ horse ranch, the film revolves around the lives of Otis Junior, “OJ” (Daniel Kaluuya), and Emerald, “Em” (Keke Palmer), who inherit their family’s horse handling business after their father mysteriously passes away from a supernatural incident.
Six months down the line, OJ and Em are following in their father’s footsteps, training horses for commercials in Hollywood. The business is unfortunately dying, for it is much easier to control CGI and prop-like horses in Hollywood nowadays than real animals, leaving OJ no choice but to sell most of his horses.
To much surprise, the man who buys the horses is none other than Jupe (Steven Yeun), owner of “Jupiter’s Claim” theme park and successful child actor, renowned for his role in the ‘90s sitcom Gordy’s Home.
Pretty soon, the Haywood ranch becomes the hot site for paranormal and unexplainable encounters with the otherworldly. Desperate to capture footage of these events, OJ and Em round up a team to “get that Oprah shot”, hoping to propel themselves to fame for being the first to provide proof of UFOs and the extra-terrestrial.
Blood baths, tornado whirlwinds, pennies, and agonising screams ensue, as NOPE establishes itself as a grotesque horror, shaking cinema as we know it.
One of my biggest mistakes going into this film was expecting to see an extension of the social commentaries Peele is renowned for, what his previous projects, Us, Candyman (2021), and Get Out, had explored about the human experience. But Peele drastically strays away from those apparent themes here, portraying, instead, a social commentary about an otherworldly UFO, that in many ways mirrors our society, even if it is among the more subtle of messages.
NOPE is playfully enigmatic, allowing us to devise our own interpretations; however, its recurring themes point to it being a social critique of the industry: its exploitation, the spectacle, and our consumerist, media-driven society that attempts to capture and monetise everything. From Em’s dire need to get “that Oprah shot” to the filmmaker who risks their life for some footage, Peele is critiquing the aspects that have kept the film industry alive, including the exploitation of minorities and the mistreatment of animals.
Despite having left the cinema feeling underwhelmed, the cinematography and the acting were the film’s most redeeming qualities. NOPE’s beautiful skyline and action-packed UFO shots were not only unique but absolutely mesmerising. Such talent lies at the hands of Hoyte Van Hoytema, the award-winning Dutch cinematographer whose other famous works include Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) and Dunkirk (2017).
Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya’s chemistry on-screen was something that made the film infinitely more enjoyable. As expected, Kaluuya gave an excellent performance as OJ; a reserved and lonesome character, the lack of dialogue was not a limitation, in fact, it only elevated his performance as there were times when his eyes did all the talking.
Likewise, Palmer played the annoyingly energetic and irresponsible younger sister remarkably well, with her lines making the audience often laugh out loud. Her ability to switch up when under attack, however, showed a tremendous amount of talent.
My only complaint was that Steven Yeun did not receive enough screen time, meaning his traumatic storyline was left with gaping holes and us, viewers, were left desperately wanting more. Though most of the characters were one-dimensional and had poor dialogue, their performances are what gave the film its depth and drove the fear forward.
“It’s called ‘NOPE’ because that’s the reaction Black people will have when they watch it, they’ll go ‘Nope’.” (Daniel Kaluuya on Jimmy Fallon's The Tonight Show)
When you sit down and digest the film, I find that it gets better the longer you think about it. To truly appreciate what reviewers are dubbing “Peele’s best work to date”, you have to process the chaos that you’ve just witnessed.
Despite being a slow-burn film that, at times, reduced its shock-horror factor through cheap jump scares, there’s no denying that NOPE is enriched with metaphors, subliminal messages, and a social commentary on our entertainment-driven society. This is not something that you may pick up the first time that you watch it, but this is what differentiates NOPE from other films in the industry.
Peele moves beyond typical sci-fi and provides a grotesque horror that can be truly appreciated by those who know and love film. NOPE is ultimately bound to make you feel uncomfortable, confused, and scared of the unknown.
Featured Image: UPI Media
NOPE (2022) is showing in UK cinemas from the 12th of August. Will you be watching Peele's third directorial film?