Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer are on tremendous form in a bold grappling with art that sets a new precedent for the blockbuster
Something that’s always bothered me about scream queens is how much of a performance their fear demands. Of course, spectacle reigns supreme in genre cinema for many good reasons – but then you see these girls, sometimes boys, shrieking so loudly in terror, you wonder how you’d respond yourself. Could you find that kind of guttural outcry? I think I’d probably freeze. Save the energy while I can. Somehow, writer-director Jordan Peele embraces both sides of the coin in his ambitious third feature Nope, subverting scream queens and dissecting the very nature of spectacle for all its power and venom.
Nope is fundamentally a piece of art about making art, and the ultimate human price we pay for doing so. In the face of grave danger, would you run for the hills in order to save yourself, or get as close as you can to the wreckage to capture it and immortalize it for the rest of the world? And would you do that so that you can later, with that attention and acclaim, make your life a little easier for a little longer – if you are indeed still alive? It’s a headache of a moral dilemma delivered with shockingly straightforward blockbuster entertainment value. There’s no over-intellectualizing nor dumbing-down in Nope – only a lean, sharp societal and sci-fi triumph, with more originality than mainstream cinema has seen in years.
Peele teams up once more with Daniel Kaluuya after both changed the world with Get Out, and immediately it feels like coming home. There’s a confidence and plain sense of cool in this collaboration, which always works hard to keep us guessing. But it’s not a one-man show either – Kaluuya’s stoicism as horse wrangler OJ Haywood is challenged by the kinetic flamboyance of his sister Emerald, with Keke Palmer proving why she’s been so successful for so long, and why we’ve all been fools for not paying attention. The Haywoods have been painstakingly trying to preserve their great great grandfather’s legacy, the anonymous Black jockey who was indeed the man riding the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s first ever images caught in motion. But then they have even more to deal with when their horses start interfering with higher powers that are more than any of us know how to handle.
Aliens are here, but they’re not like the aliens we know (or have we really ever known them?). This is a living, breathing threat that perfectly understands fame and obsession, but will never let you know how to save yourself. Of course it’s fascinating, and terrifying – learning more about whatever this menace is feels like a lurid shot of euphoria. Is the rush worth your life? Can you dare to look away?
OJ has his own answer – and here’s where Kaluuya’s generational talent come in. It’s hard to describe the North London actor’s restrained strength without underselling it, his deadpan comedy that captures its corrosive power. Where some might scream, OJ just shakes his head. His numbness almost feels calming. It’s the kind of casual relatability so many Hollywood superstars have been chasing for decades, exemplified in a pivotal scene in which OJ sits in his car while a blood storm rages around him.
There are so many dazzling moments visually and sonically in Nope – sound designer Johnnie Burn and composer Michael Abels have a field day with nightmarish gasps and swirls that breathe in the noises of animals, humans, the natural world and things we don't know or understand, in ways that left me looking petrified at the hand dryer in the bathroom right after leaving the cinema. Visually, it’s exhilarating, somehow giving a dusty panoramic vista and neon inflatable skydancers a sense of poetry. Moments of horror – “bad miracles” as OJ calls them towards the start of the film – can’t even be described. Yes, there's Spielberg and there’s Akira, but there’s also nothing else like this. Everything about Nope is best when it sucks you in by surprise and swallows you whole.
Nope is released in UK cinemas on 12 August.Where to watch