10 August 2022

First Impressions: NOPE

NOPE (2022) is the latest from Jordan Peele, who is quickly becoming our most notable horror auteur and a driver of original cinematic content in theaters. It's bizarre to see something new on screen. Almost like stepping back in time. Which is what this movie is all about! And aliens! SPOILERS FOREVER.

Yes, I did keep staring at her shirt in this scene. What the hell is that shirt

This is unpopular, but I think Peele is like, okay. Get Out (2017) was fine, I do think it was ruined for me since I knew the twist going into it. I maybe just had a sub-optimal viewing of it. I really liked US (2019), but that had a handful of problems. None that should really get in the way of the movie, and to be sure, we shouldn't get bogged down by things like how this secret underground society couldn't really exist. Like, it's the premise of the movie, go with it.

NOPE clears all this up and I will catch up to calling Peele one of our greatest current directors. This is one of those "fires on all levels" movies. The acting is unreal, the plot is staggeringly original, it develops complex themes through action, metaphor, and parallelism, it's shot in both breathtaking vistas that serve the setting and plot while moving the story forward. Everything here just works, man.

It opens on Daniel Kaluuya and his father Keith David hanging out on their horse farm. They used to do a lot of Hollywood stunts but that's gone out of favor with CGI. This is a persistent theme in the background that runs through the whole movie. On the surface it's basically about the exploitation of animal labor, but it's also about the shifting development of spectacle in Hollywood, our relationship with technology, photographs in particular, and in a broader sense, our lack of respect for nature and what happens when that happens (it's not great...).

Keith David gets a quarter to the brain and suddenly Kaluuya and his sister Keke Palmer are left high and dry. This is more of a Kaluuya movie than a Keke movie, which I wasn't entirely disappointed by because he does a stunning job and it's a worthwhile story to tell, but the trailers just seemed to hint that Keke would be the lead. Let's jump into that first.

Kaluuya impressively plays a largely passive protagonist. This is hard to pull off. His character is shy, nervous about himself and his place amongst his family and legacy, and isn't really worthy to carry on his father's mantle. Keke isn't worthy, either, but for entirely different reasons. She's charming and confident, but also a flighty schemer who doesn't care enough about said legacy to be invested in it. Combined they could really be powerful, and they do work together well, but hey, that's why we have a movie. The acting really is something to behold, but it's more subtle than it's gotten credit for.

Steven Yuen rounds out the cast but maybe we can just have a whole Gordy section later? We've also got Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott, who both fill their roles exactly as needed, but people are probably a little too hard for Wincott. He's fine, here, a little more showy. I'll take this moment to complain that I don't think this film passes the Bechdel test, and it notably sidelines Keke during the final confrontation (although she IS the one who gets the final shot at the end). Just saying, it's weird how much this does come up a little short with its female character, despite her phenomenal screen presence.

Weird stuff starts happening. Power goes out, stuff falls from the sky, horses get spooked and go missing. This mystery is unraveled through out the first half and many of these answers are filled in through implication and matter of fact storytelling that doesn't call attention to itself. You know...like a good movie. It's shocking to witness a film that doesn't spoon-feed us every answer like a Wikipedia page. Is it weird to even call this good direction, but it does require a deft hand and Peele is proving himself to be a master.

So, when will Keegan Michael Key show up in one of these? I know, I think he wants to distance himself from that stuff. It's like how Mel Brooks took his name off of producing The Elephant Man (1980). I just kept thinking about like, an Oscar-winning KMK performance in some mind-blowing Peele picture. That'd be unreal. It would just feel better than him showing up in bit parts in trash like The Predator (2018), The Bubble (2022), and The Pentaverate lately. Man, it's tough to see how far one of their career has gone while watching the other.

NOPE seems to be primarily about animal exploitation and how we can't control nature. Animals don't do what we want them to do. This hits home for me, from Tiger King to Rabbits at the County Fair, I just don't understand why we have anything to do with imprisoning, showing, or messing with animals. Just let them be wild animals, we don't have to mess with them. I am all about animal CGI to get them out of human hands. It's bad for humans and no good for the animal. I don't even care if it looks fake. NOPE instrumentally uses CGI for its alien and of course Gordy, but does use live horses. I wonder if they gave some work to a real life Haywood Ranch some work. But it presents the thematic contrast within the film itself - is there a difference between using real horses that offer that realism, while they are treated with kindness and respect in the Ranch (note how no one listens to Kaluuya when he tries to explain their danger) and the more obvious out of nature exploitation of Gordy? Let's dive into both of these because they're the same thing.

Kaluuya isn't able to articulate the safety needed around horses or the danger they impose because of his character. He's just not a confident, vocal dude. It leads to people getting hurt and his company being sacked. But it does, however, offer that mentality that he has inherent respect and deference for animals. It saves his life with Jean Jacket.

Steve Yuen learns all the wrong lessons. He was the only surviving cast member (okay, the girl whose face got ripped off kind of) of a horrible Monkey Tragedy. But Gordy gave him a fist bump at the end of his rampage (in one of the most chilling scenes, let's say...ever). He either didn't learn any lesson at all, thought he was special and could control animals, or thought he learned a lesson about how to be safe and exploit them but really didn't change his behavior.  Yuen is a product of a particularly cruel Hollywood machine incapable of learning respect because he believes he deserves a higher status. It's capitalist, it's corrupt, it's exploitative, and he pays a damned steep price.

I was also struck by how much this film is obsessed with images. It seems no coincidence that the first thought these millennials have when they suspect the existence of alien life is to get a picture of it. That's really the impetus for the entire movie. It's to get the perfect framing for insta. We see this later with the TMZ guy who when his life is at stake still can't let go of getting the perfect shot. And it's not actually just a millennial thing, old af Michael Wincott dies so he can get the perfect shot of prey being gobbled by a perfect predator.

It's the intersection of artistry with vapid narcissism that forms the foundation of our 2022 culture. Everything must be documented. Our first instinct is to capture a moment for later rather than living in it now. And fine, that's a boomer complaint and maybe that's just the lens that I watched this movie through, but it seemed to crop up again and again. There was no desire to alert authorities, make contact, exploit technology. Just get a picture. That's the basis for everything they try to do in this film.

Then it all parallels the animal stuff. There is an older generation with a luddite camera, digital motion sensors linked up to home security systems. The final shot where they actually capture the beast on film is through a very old school, novelty contraption. It's fitting that she has to keep inserting tokens to get a snap. The pictures always cost us - wha ho!

From an actual directorial standpoint, this is a sublimely crafted film. The vistas of Southern California, the imposing balloon structures, near-experimental shots of the alien innards where it's hard to tell what is even real, the unraveling mystery, it's all peak. The tension is mind-blowing. When Kaluuya is getting punked in the barn is more disturbing than all of IT (2017). No question. And that Gordy scene. You just want it to end! It's strung along like fine twine and broken at a perfect moment.

We should talk about the blackness. I love that the reaction is "Nope" so often because that's a very black reaction to when things get sour. White girls always run and fall and white guys seem to always want to split up and check out what's in that spooky closet. I love how they crafted a film where every character could go "Nope" and peace out while still being so damn scary and effective. I think black folk are just more cautious and skeptical with insane shit because they live with that stupid shit every day. I'm a white dude, so feel free to call out my stereotyping in the comments. But the refreshing thing about Peele is that he's a black voice giving black stories with black characters instead of someone being forced in some way to write something inauthentic.

This is great, easy one of the top films of the year. Everyone should check it out - I do recommend a theater for the inherent bigness. Don't be like when I watched Get Out on a tiny screen like a year after it came out. This has everything going for it, so boom watch it.

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