Aliens Among Us
I have to admit that I'm decidedly mixed on the films of Jordan Peele. In concept I like the movies he's created -- a racial play on The Stepford Wives with Get Out, a creepy story about parallel humans in Us -- but, in practice, something has been missing for me. Part of it might be that I'm White and, thus, don't have all the experiences of someone growing up in the Black community ( wasn't rich growing up but I will admit I'm likely closer in median income to the villains of Get Out than the intended audience). But, in some cases, I feel like Peele's ambitions might be larger than his storytelling ability.
I don't mean that as a slight to the writer / director, mind you. I love ambition. I'd rather a film take big swings and fail part of the time than never even try. Us is a big swing kind of film. The first two thirds are absolutely creepy as shit, with a twisty setup and then really terrifying villains. Those first two acts are some of the most watchable horror I've ever seen. The issue with that film comes in its last act, when the monsters have to be revealed for their true form and the story gets bogged down under needless complication. I'm still not sure if I could have written an ending that would have saved that film, but the ending it got really wasn't as satisfying as it could have been.
That, I feel, is starting to become a pattern for Peele's works, and I base that on the fact that all three of his films to date -- Get Out, Us, and now Nope -- have had some kind of flaw to them that keep them from really resonating for me. With Get Out it was an easy, pat ended that didn't feel true to the setup (that ending, mind you, wasn't the original ending intended for the story but Peele changed it late in development). For Us it's the "Hand Across America" moment that truly lost me. And here, with his 2022 release, everything falls apart just as soon as the mystery is trying explain.
It's hard to talk about this film without spoiling anything, as this film is absolutely loaded with material, almost from the start, that wasn't included in any of the trailers. Even just saying what this film is about is a big spoiler if you want into it just off the trailers. I have to spoil a little, sadly, but I'm going to refrain from discussing the last game twists at least. With that in mind, if you still want to see this year-old (at the time of this writing) movie blind, you need to go do that now before reading this review. Everything past this point will at least be mildly spoilerish.
Nope is Peele's big swing at a kind of sci-fi alien kaiju film. It follows two siblings, Otis "OJ" Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer). They inherited their father's horse ranch, and business, after dad (Keith David) died in a freak accident. Garbage, assumed to have been dropped from a passing plane, fell from the sky and impaled him. He died on the way to the hospital. Ever since then, Junior has been trying to keep the ranch afloat, selling horses here and there to pay bills while also attempting to continue the Haywood Hollywood Horses business (they're descendants of the first motion picture actor, a Black actor photographed on horseback for Animal Locomotion).
Keke, naturally, isn't happy to hear that O.J. has been selling the horses to get by. Those were her dad's legacy and without the horses what do they really have? O.J., meanwhile, really wants to get the horses back from the man he sold them to, Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who's opened the nearby theme park ranch Jupiter's Claim. And then, in the middle of all of this happening, more of the Haywood horses start disappearing. Are they running off? Have they been stolen? Or... is something more going on? Maybe... aliens? If they could get proof of alien life they'd be able to make a fortune and get all their horses back. The only problem is dealing with whatever extraterrestrial is flying out around their lands.
The setup for Nope is interesting. It plays on the concept of aliens swooping down and picking up cows and other animals, turning them inside out. Why would they do this? Is it just some weird experiment? Well, in Peele's movie they aren't just taken up and experimented on; something more happens and then the animals are just gone. The creeping mystery about what, how, and why, does help to drive the movie forward, at least to a certain extent. I think the concept, the slow build of the mystery.
This issue is that the reveal, which comes half way into the film, deflated much of the tension surrounding the mystery. The alien, when revealed, is less scary than just kind of goofy. It's weirdly cartoony in a way I'm sure wasn't intended, but once it's seen it's hard to take the thing seriously. In a way it reminds me of Us in that it's a reveal that dictates its own ending, and while I don't like the reveal or ending it builds towards I also don't know how you'd fix it without ditching the entire concept to begin with.
Not helping matters is that the film mires itself in a bunch of storylines that don't ever really pay off. Will Otis rebuild the Hollywood Horses business? We don't ever find out because the film stops caring about it half way in. What's going on with Jupiter's Claim? Does it somehow tie into Ricky's past as a child actor and the time, when he was on a show opposite a chimp actor, the chimp when crazy and started killing everyone? Well, it doesn't, as once again the film has other things on its mind at a certain point and a lot of build up for this story is suddenly rendered absolutely unnecessary.
There's a whole bunch of story in here that could easily have been shunted into other films. Not all of those movies would have been horror but some could. I think a more dramatic tale about O.J. trying to rebuild his father's business could be interesting. The tale of Ricky's time as a child actor, and how it affected him later in life, could be interesting. Maybe then having those characters crossover in this weird film might have worked better than, when the film wasn't fighting to keep it's various threads on the track. There's just a bit too much on the periphery that then doesn't come to fruition for my liking here.
This is what I mean by big swings. Peele packs a lot into this film, and while it doesn't all work on the whole a lot of it is compelling as pieces. And even the alien, goofy as it is, has some affecting moments (a big scene halfway into the film, is genuinely creepy). I think the alien fails as a real threat on the whole, but it does have moments where I kind of see what the designers were going for. It almost works, just like this film almost works, and I can appreciate the gusto the team had for this project.
Nope is imperfect at best. It works well as a character study for the various players, and there's a lot of deep, genuine back story you can sink your teeth into. It has a richly defined world that feels lived in, and that helps to carry the film a long way. Once the movie shifts gears, though, and has to focus on the alien, it starts to lose its power, and its momentum. I wanted to like it, and while I didn't hate it I have to admit that the film never truly rises to its potential.