At a key moment in this self-consciously deconstructive slice of spectacular cinema from Jordan Peele, writer-director of Get Out and Us, a character theorises that the monster (whatever it may be) is at its most dangerous when being looked at. It’s an idea that’s as old as the Greek myth of Medusa (one gaze will turn you to stone) and that resurfaced in 2018 in Susanne Bier’s post-apocalyptic chiller Bird Box (one look will make you kill yourself). It’s even cheekily echoed in Adam McKay’s recent Don’t Look Up, in which Trumpian politicians insist that destruction-by-comet can be avoided by simply refusing to stare death in the face.
In Nope, horse wrangler/trainer Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (an understatedly intense Daniel Kaluuya) tries to dodge the deadly attentions of whatever skybound phenomenon is terrorising his California ranch by studiously avoiding eye contact. OJ’s family, which includes ill-fated father Otis Sr (Keith David) and fame-seeking sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), proudly sell themselves as direct descendants of the unnamed jockey featured in Eadweard Muybridge’s late 19th-century images of a rider and horse – a precursor of modern cinema (“since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game”). Now the Haywood ranch provides horses for film and TV productions (“the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood”), although struggling OJ may have to sell their stock to former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who runs a nearby theme park. But then mysterious signs in the sky offer either an unexpected opportunity, or a “bad miracle” …
Despite there being extensive spoilers everywhere about what OJ is up against, it’s best to see Nope unprepared and spend a healthy amount of time wondering “WTF is going on?!” Suffice to say that Peele draws on a wide range of influences, from the awestruck human befuddlement of Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the eerie, angelic forms of the Japanese TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, and (accidentally?) the far-too-pleased-with-itself silliness of M Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. He also picks up cine-literate threads from Antonioni’s swinging 60s parable Blow-Up, Sidney Poitier’s 70s western Buck and the Preacher (a poster for which hangs on the ranch wall), Katsuhiro Otomo’s 80s manga Akira (which Peele was once tapped to remake) and even Ron Underwood’s cult desert-bound 90s monster movie Tremors. More importantly, he rips off (or “pays homage to”) the iconic chase sequences from Jaws, with inflatable air dancers standing in for those floating yellow barrels that made Spielberg’s shark all the more terrifying when unseen.
From this rich stew, Peele cooks up an elliptical (and sometimes frustratingly paced) yarn about our habit of staring in stupefaction at danger, disaster and trauma. This is hardly news to cinemagoers who have spent a century happily gawping at the fiery wrath of early biblical epics (Nope opens with an Old Testament threat to “make you a spectacle”) and the modern chaos of disaster hits such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. More recently we had the end-of-the-world loops of Interstellar, with which this film shares ace director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema, a man who knows about capturing the cataclysmic on screen. Sure enough, the character who most verges on caricature is an eccentric Ahab/Quint-like cinematographer (Michael Wincott) who uses not a harpoon but a hand-cranked camera to “capture” this prize beast after surveillance-cam techie Angel (scene-stealing rising star Brandon Perea) discovers that his quarry eats electricity for breakfast.
There’s a neat irony in conjuring an Imax-friendly essay on the perils of gazing. And beyond the surreal sci-fi spectacles and gorgeously rendered night-time vistas, Nope’s warnings about enraging an opponent – whether it’s a startled chimp or an amorphous sky blob – by looking it in the eye strike a down-to-earth chord in a racially divided world (perhaps OJ’s adversary is a metaphor for white supremacy?). Yet Peele’s ability to balance these intriguing ideas with the brutally kinetic demands of blockbuster cinema is more uncertain, making this a better movie to argue about than to watch. Remember – Jaws may not have been “about” a shark, but it still moved like one. As with the brilliantly horrifying sitcom bloodbath that serves as Nope’s attention-grabbing curtain-raiser, the film too often seems to be heading somewhere extraordinary, only to disappear into an ambitious conceptual hole that, while occasionally startling, is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.