Cinema Dispatch: Nope

Nope and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Jordan Peele

Very recently I’ve started watching Key & Peele in earnest as I had seen little more than clips online in the past, and frankly, it’s not all that surprising that at least one of them became a horror director. The duo made some very funny stuff, but there are also quite a few sketches throughout the show that not only have a sinister edge to them but almost feel like precursors to Jordan Peele’s first feature Get Out. Now he has two wildly successful features under his belt and much like M Night Shyamalan when he was in that position, his next move is to go for a spooky movie about aliens, or at least the general idea of them as the marketing has done a very good job covering up the true nature of whatever is going on here. Does this updated take on the classic sci-fi genre prove to be as groundbreaking as Peele’s previous films, or is even the best of filmmakers unable to escape the occasional dud? Let’s find out!!

OJ Haywood and his sister Em (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) are left running their father’s horse ranch after an unexpected (and unexplained) accident took his life only a few months prior. Now Papa Haywood (Keith David) ran Hayood’s Hollywood Horse Ranch like a true professional as he took great care of the horses and worked well with the production studios, but unfortunately, his kids aren’t exactly filling his shoes with Em having the personality but not the business sense and OJ working great with horses but not with other people. The only thing keeping them afloat is selling horses one after another to the local rodeo owned by former child star Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), but that’s only going to last for so long before they will surely need to sell their father’s ranch and his legacy off to whoever will throw a few dollars their way. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, there seems to be this strange thing in the sky that will occasionally pass soundlessly through the air in the middle of the night and has some sort of effect on electronic equipment which can only mean one thing; aliens, and therefore opportunity! Em is gung ho about capturing some fantastic footage of this mysterious spacecraft on film and selling it to the highest bidder, and OJ is just kinda going along with it since there isn’t much more they can do to save the ranch, so with the help of a local electronics store clerk (Brandon Perea) they set up a series of cameras around the ranch hope to get a once in a lifetime shot that will put Haywood’s Hollywood Horses back in the spotlight! What is this mysterious thing in the night sky that Em and OJ hope to capture on film, and can they do it without drawing its attention; or wrath? What is it doing here in the first place, and are the Haywood’s the only ones trying to catch a glimpse of it? Seriously, with the way things have been going lately, how much are they really gonna get for alien footage? It’s not like there won’t be another dozen or so terrifying news stories the next day!

“If we can sandwich the release between the end of the January Sixth hearings and the latest news from climate scientists, we may have a solid six hours on Twitter’s Trending topics!”     “And that turns into money, how?”     “That comes when they make the docu-series on Netflix.”

This one has put me in a bit of a spot as I never like to come out of a movie feeling like I’m supposed to enjoy it more than I did, but then I just as much don’t like coming out of a movie and not quite knowing what my issues were with it. Is this a good movie? Most certainly. Is this also Jordan Peele’s least entertaining film? In my humble opinion, also yes. If I want to be pithy about it, I’d say the comparison to Signs earlier was quite apt with all the good and bad that comes with it because where I found his other films tight, engaging, and consistently surprising, this one feels like it’s trying to work out a lot of interesting ideas that don’t exactly come together. Why they don’t come together is what I’m struggling to put into words however and is what we’ll try to untangle throughout the rest of this review, but I found Get Out to be much more taut and biting and I think Us is much more evocative and harrowing. This one wins in terms of scope as there are some very big moments here, especially in the third act, but other than that it just can’t escape the shadow of its older siblings.

In the movie’s defense, it’s a pretty big shadow!

This movie is not getting out of this review without a recommendation, so let’s clarify what does work about this movie, even for someone who didn’t quite connect with it. There are a lot of strengths to Peele’s directing style and once again he makes a beautiful and haunting-looking movie with some creative camerawork that really gets inside the headspace of the characters and drags you along for the ride. The design and aesthetics at play with whatever the BAD THING is in the movie are well executed and definitely have that sense of overwhelming and unstoppable dread that you want from a threat like this, and there is one scene that is genuinely as scary as anything Peele has done in any of his other films. The narrative is where I start to have a few misgivings, but there are definitely characters and ideas that are strongly built here and are fantastic in their own moments; particularly Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun who have an interesting parallel to their storylines as Keke is trying to get her Hollywood career going while Steven has already reached his peak and is desperate to maintain whatever he has left. Daniel Kalulya is the one I’m a bit more ambivalent about as he does embody his character very well and there are some great scenes with the way that people in the industry treat him, but I also feel like I never truly understood what he was about and I could never quite tell what motivated him. Even the things the movie tells us are important to him feel more like a burden, and while that might have been part of the point (legacy is just as much a curse as it is a gift), it also means that I didn’t have much investment in his economic plight which, to me, takes up way more prominence in the movie than I thought it should. Thankfully things do pick up for him in the third act which is when he truly takes center stage, but the third act is its own interesting can of worms that we’ll get into soon enough.

Get Out 2!  This time, YOU’RE the one who’s not getting out!

Kalulya isn’t the only thing about this movie that feels a bit off as the movie has an issue with pacing and dialogue which is where the Signs comparisons are most applicable. The movie shines when it comes to creeping dread and crafting characters with a lot of complexity and sadness to them, but there were more than a few times in this movie that I questioned dialogue choices, decisions made in the script, and some of the ways that the themes clash against one another. To go into details on this would lead to spoilers, but even with something rather abstract as The Tethered in Us, it never felt like the movie itself was confused as to what it was trying to say and did an effective job of leading us down its winding road. Here, it feels like a few different ideas are competing for space and the winding road is more like a series of four-way stops where everyone’s fighting for the right of way. The movie does have funny moments in it, but it also has that certain Shyamalan quality where you’re not entirely sure how po-faced it’s supposed to be and if laughter is appropriate in certain scenes which can work in some of the more unsettling moments in the movie, but in parts where I feel like there was supposed to be a joke to break the tension… there just isn’t. It comes off like a book adaptation in the way that the characters and story beats are carefully constructed and built upon an interesting message, but then doesn’t fit as naturally together when someone has to literally put it onscreen instead of creating their own abstract idea of the story in their minds, and I found it hard to find the film’s wavelength and ride with it. Now the movie does really truly click for me at the end of the second act once the film really starts to show what it’s about and the horror of the situation becomes real and no longer abstract. Peele pulls out all the stops and gives us some fantastic horror moments that are sure to give you goosebumps as our characters try to carefully navigate a situation they can barely even comprehend, and the movie feels like it’s in the moment rather than setting us up for a twist or wrestling with its themes. Then it gets to the third act, and well… we’re gonna have to dig a bit deeper into that.

“See, here’s your problem. You left it in airplane mode when it should be in flying saucer mode.”     …     “We better not be paying you by the hour.”

When we get to the third act, it feels to me like Peele’s heart wasn’t as into making this as another horror movie and was just going through the motions until the film could finally become what he wanted. In isolation, the final third is pretty spectacular and an interesting take on the genre it becomes (which I won’t spoil here), but it makes me want to see that movie all the way through instead of what we got leading up to it which was well executed in many spots but felt wonky and unfocused; seemingly working backward from the finale. He knew where the movie was going, what themes would work best for it, and how it brought Daniel Kalulya’s character arc to a satisfying conclusion, but it either needed to be the focus of the movie at the halfway point or sooner because the way it changes gears at the end undercuts far too much of what came before it. This is where I feel that my voice is not the best to be talking about this movie, or at least certain aspects of it because the switch from one genre to the other was so stark and explained more than a few decisions I found questionable along the way. For someone who sees the finale as more than just a spectacular action scene or the culmination of a character arc, then those sacrifices in the first two-thirds of the movie are more than justified. For me though, I was really trying to get into what he was doing with the horror aspects of this and left it feeling disappointed even with it ending on a high note.

“You know this is exactly how they shot Apocalypse Now, only with less LSD and only a few more dead bodies.” “I’ll have to take your word for it.”

There’s no doubt that Jordan Peele is still a fantastic filmmaker and his ability to build suspense through ingeniously shot set pieces is top-notch, but at the end of the day, this doesn’t feel as creatively engaging as his previous works. To me, it comes down to a lack of focus and what I would call a misguided attempt at subverting expectations. It’s the kind of horror movie that is at least really interesting to discuss and certainly has its strong moments throughout so I am more positive than negative on this, but on the scale of Jordan Peele movies, I can’t help feeling disappointed. I’m sure he’ll come back stronger with the next one and hopefully, I can get on board with it a lot easier than I did trying to get on this one; especially if he goes for something other than a horror movie. I’d rather see him try for something completely different than getting stuck going through the motions, and if this movie does nothing else, it at least proves he can do more as a filmmaker than just horror and dark comedy.

3.5 out of 5

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