Otis 'OJ' Haywood Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) have inherited their father's horse ranch after he's killed in an unexplained incident involving falling debris from the sky. The failing ranch, which supplies horses to the film and television industry, is next door to a theme park run and operated by Ricky 'Jupe' Park (Steven Yuen), a former child actor who survived a horrific incident in his youth and has now capitalised on this by creating a theme park. When a UFO begins to appear over the valley between the two ranches, each of them come up with different ways to try and exploit its presence...
In his previous work, 'Us' and 'Get Out', Jordan Peele proved he enjoys and is skilled at making horror thrillers with different meanings and interpretations baked in. 'Get Out' was an out-there, 'Twilight Zone'-esque story about white people kidnapping young Black people to transfer their brains into, but it was also about cultural appropriation, racism and slavery; and deconstructioning it. 'Us', meanwhile, was about generational trauma and the rise of violent nationalism in the US along the lines of Wes Craven's underrated masterpiece 'The People Under The Stairs'.
All of this, of course, is kind of irrelevant to your enjoyment of them. You can easily watch these movies and not focus in on any of these allusions and take the films at face value. 'Nope' is much the same - on the surface, you've got a relatively straightforward UFO horror in which a ragtag group of misfits try to pull off the seemingly impossible - get verifiable, undisputable proof of the existence of alien life. Yet, just scratch a little bit, and there's a can of alien worms waiting underneath.
'Nope' takes in all sorts of motifs, themes, and ideas. There's Black representation in early Hollywood history, there's the commodification of trauma and sensationalism. For example, a key scene sees Daniel Kaluuya's character - referred to as OJ by everyone, by the way - riding across the ranch on the back of a white bronco horse. Then, you've got ideas around exploitation, not to mention a stark characterisation of all-consuming content and the endless toil of churning out that content in order to satisfy a seemingly bottomless pit.
Jordan Peele's mastery of atmosphere, comedic timing, and tension are on full display. The less-is-more approach with the UFO is worked to its logical conclusion, when it becomes the reverse and we see the full-sized scale of what's been hiding behind clouds and beyond the mountains. The sound design, as well, is unnerving and you'll know why when you hear it for the first time and realise what it is. As with everything Jordan Peele does, there are layers and meaning in everything - including the UFO itself.
Daniel Kaluuya gives a restrained, withdrawn performance in stark contrast to Keke Palmer's outsized, jabber jaw hustler. Paired between them is Steven Yuen, who is so warped by a trauma he experienced in his youth that he's now living in a theme park borne out of it. Although Brandon Perea is rightfully in his breakout role in this as Angel, the well-meaning UFO enthusiast and tech guy, Michael Wincott's raspy tones and total screen presence make for some of the most thought-provoking moments in the movie.
Where 'Nope' begins to come apart, so to speak, is in its final act. As mentioned, the less-is-more approach where our own imagination fills in the blanks is utilised fully until it isn't, and when the UFO and what it entails is shown fully, it becomes more of an outright blockbuster spectacle - with a disturbing message underneath.
There's a good chance you'll walk away from 'Nope' somewhat deflated, and probably thinking some of the other subplots in the movie might have made for a better story than the one you got. That's kind of the point, if you think about it. We, the audience, are always looking for more. We want to see everything and make ourselves sick for watching it and wanting more. It never ends. More pointedly to 'Nope', we're just as culpable in the horrors of this as the UFO is. In fact, we - the audience - are the UFO.