Jordan Peele’s third film is a doozy, a referendum on spectacle culture and a rollicking blockbuster all the same.
If you want to see the dark side of fireworks, go watch what they do to a dog. Every loud blast, for most people, is an annoyance at worst, a quick burst of color and sparkle at best to coronate, for some reason, America’s birthday. Though, for a dog, it’s an intrusion of normalcy, a rapid-fire scare from beyond that sends your beloved pooch into a frenzy of fear. Maybe they’ll bark, maybe they’ll hide. It doesn’t ever feel right; it’ll break your heart to see something so innocent petrified by something so trivial. It seems like the ripple effect of fireworks go across nature, sending wildlife into a state of shock. Sure, fireworks can be cool, but they seem to unbalance nature, giving our spectacle a tragic consequence that will largely go unseen.
Jordan Peele’s Nope, the third film in his budding, horror-tinged filmography, is obsessed with our obsession with spectacle, and our seeming societal inability to rectify with that obsession. From the horrifying events of its opening moments to the UFO hook that mounts most of its action, Peele’s film will draw quick comparisons to Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock, though the film it most resembled in spirit is a small one, Theo Anthony’s 2021 documentary All Light, Everywhere. In it, Anthony posits the violence of being watched in everyday society, in the terror of being surveilled, of cameras striking with the same force of a bullet.
Peele’s film, though, focuses a bit more on the person in front of the camera, on the one soaking in the attention that comes with notoriety. A spiked mix of Jaws, Nightcrawler, Almost Famous, Once Upon a Time in the West, Jurassic Park and Close Encounters with the Third Kind, Nope gives audiences an unforgettable experience, but forces them to reckon with exactly what types of experiences they really want, and at what cost. In a world where elections and insurrections become high entertainment on cable news, cheaply made true crime documentaries go viral on Netflix, the judicial system is exploited by LivePD-esque reality shows, celebrity culture and empty, IP-driven spectacle are cheapening our relationship with art and TikTok is indoctrinating a new generation in a social addiction to attention and fame, Nope feels like an Old Testament plague creeping in from the heavens. It is a grand flood that not only takes an industry to task for how it is making movies, but an entire entertainment complex that blurries the line between excavation and exploitation. With Nope, Peele dissects the difference in being seen and being viewed, and how unfettered focus on the latter can, quite literally, swallow us up and spit us out without warning.
Despite a cerebral playground, Nope is Peele’s grand tribute to the blockbusters he grew up with and came to love, the kinds of movies that we used to get more regularly. It shouldn’t be such a grand occasion to get such a vibrant, scary, alive studio blockbuster, one that, while intellectually stimulating, is also just a flat-out roller coaster ride. It’s a classical monster movie for most of its runtime, blending in plenty of sci-fi, western and horror tropes. Nope finds two siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, both excellent) trying to track footage of a UFO to help save their struggling family business, one rooted in the history of Hollywood productions. Aided by a paranoid tech expert (Brandon Perea in a breakout turn) and grizzled cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott in a deserved comeback), the hunt for proof of life out yonder plays with the same zeal of a Spielbergian sci-fi romp, but also with the uneasy subtext that has marked Peele’s first two films. The way he carefully weaves in a dueling story involving a former child star (Steven Yeun) in the same town as our sibling protagonists, and how that child star has dealt with a tragic event in his past, speaks volumes to the way the filmmaker is able to cram together so much commentary in such a sleek package. It’s just rare such a thrilling film can have so much on its mind.
It’s how things should be in this space. For years, audiences went to the movies to be dazzled, yes, but also to think. Artists were given wide canvasses to tell epic stories, but rarely were those films empty vessels. Peele has entrenched himself as one of the premiere auteurs of his generation, a distinct voice in the wilderness calling back from a time that has come and gone, but with fresh perspective and damning commentary. To argue that Peele should do a superhero movie misses the entire point that Nope is making, in part. To remember that Peele recently stepped away from acting and chided its potential for vanity after making his name in front of a camera should highlight a lot more about what he’s getting at in his latest effort.
Between Michael Abels’ John Williams-ready score, the way cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema uses scope and light to enhance the film’s awe and terror, the unreal sound design, Peele’s penchant for a perfect needle drop and the array of wonderful performances, Nope feels like a major moment for studio blockbuster filmmaking. Get Out will always be a generational milestone, Us a firebrand of a follow-up. Nope, though, feels like Peele’s grand statement to the industry that he’s here, he’s got resources, and he’s not messing around. He was already one of our finest-working directors before Nope beamed into existence, but this film really might be what it takes to etch him as, no, not the next Spielberg, but an event-level filmmaker that we’ve all been worried we were losing.
Nope is a joy to behold, but not one that doesn’t force some serious introspection. It’s got a sullen cloud looming over it, even at its most sensational and exciting. The questions it’s asking, and the bear it’s poking, feel urgent. How do we use spectacle to ignore societal, or personal, wounds? How do we use spectacle to draw attention to ourselves in unhealthy ways, for hollow, selfish gains? How often do we disrupt the balance of nature and exploit our fellow man in the name of a cheap, self-serving experience? Nope is, yes, an enthralling, at times hilarious, at times terrifying, spectacle in its own right, but the kind that does good rather than poison our air. It’s a brilliant blockbuster that’s worried about the blockbusters all around us, begging us to quit dangling our feet over the edge, drawing attention to ourselves while the monster lurks in the deep, or perhaps, just above us, out of sight.