Get Out, Jordan Peele's debut feature as writer-director, was a perfect blend of social commentary and genre thrills. His follow-up Us certainly had its moments, but for me it reeked of Peele buying into his own hype and thus biting off more than he could chew. (In interviews, he's a little too eager to explain his films' symbolism and point out how clever it is.) What then, I wondered, would Nope amount to? Would it be fun? Pretentious? Both? Turns out, not quite enough of either.
The film's minimal advance advertising acknowledged that its story involves an alien attack of some sort. Rather than erupt into a full-blown invasion, however, Nope's canvas remains small – in fact it reminded me mostly of the low-budget 1990 sleeper Tremors. Attack the Block, the zippy 2011 alien invasion movie set in a working class London building, feels like an epic in comparison.
Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya plays OJ Haywood Jr., a laconic Hollywood horse wrangler who lives with his sister Emerald (Kiki Palmer) and father (Keith David) on a desert ranch about an hour outside of Los Angeles, near the town of Agua Dulce. (Vasquez Rocks, Agua Dulce's most famous landmark, has served as a location in many a sci fi film, yet it's curiously absent here.) When we first meet the family, a bizarre phenomenon occurs in which random human detritus falls from the sky, killing Dad. Yet it's not Nope's first scene.
Indeed, Nope opens with a Biblical quote about "spectacle", which leads to a cryptic semi-flashback in which, as we later learn, an actor chimpanzee went berserk during the taping of a dumb 1990s sitcom and mauled several of his costars. The glue between the two stories is Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yuen), the un-mauled child actor from the sitcom who now runs a pathetic Wild West theme park down the road from the Haywood ranch.
There is also a shared theme in the chimp backstory and the alien attack – it has to do with that "spectacle" in Peele's Bible quote – but Peele doesn't know where to go with it. I got the sense that Jordan went into Nope's screenplay with one nifty "what if?" idea about UFOs and an interest in depicting a gruesome chimp attack – it's the best and most disturbing scene in the film – but little else. It's not enough to sustain a feature or give us much to chew on afterwards.
Peele's fans will surely comb Nope for layers of deep intellectual meaning. But mostly it's just the usual "ragtag group of humans vs. scary monster" movie you've seen a million times. It's not as funny as Get Out. It's not as creepy as Us. It's enjoyable for a while, but it's peppered with plot holes and just plain runs out of juice.