Yep, it was a good idea for Jordan Peele to have the keys to a flying saucer movie.
The subtly ambitious “Nope” (★★★ out of four; rated R; in theaters Friday) trades the writer/director’s penchant for horror – where he’s become one of the most important new voices in recent years – for some old-fashioned sci-fi terror and full-on big-screen spectacle.
Teamed again with his “Get Out” star Daniel Kaluuya and bringing a great Keke Palmer along for the ride, Peele takes sizable swings with themes amid a tasty slushie of familiar film flavors, from dark Spielbergian wizardry to wonky Tarantino Western to B-movie chills.
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The introverted OJ Haywood (Kaluuya) and his mercurial little sister Emerald (Palmer) are Hollywood horse wranglers living on a remote California ranch. Their business is struggling six months after the untimely death of their father (Keith David), a victim of a strange downpour of coins and metal. And things are getting weirder in this dusty gulch for them and Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child actor with a tragic backstory who runs the neighboring amusement park.
While Jupe readies for a major new attraction, OJ begins to notice a weirdness on the ground and in the sky. His horses start going missing. A cloud sits still and doesn’t move. Then a strange airborne object zooms around with otherworldly speed.
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Wondering if aliens are involved, he and Emerald decide they need proof (and the financial windfall that might come with it), so the siblings enlist the help of an overeager tech guy (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled filmmaker (Michael Wincott).
“Nope” isn’t a particularly scary UFO film but is effectively unnerving. Peele plays with his audience in devilish ways before going big and bold with the visuals (particularly Hoyte van Hoytema’s dazzling cinematography) as well as the white-knuckle tension. Just don’t go in expecting “Get Out” or “Us”: Peele’s first two standouts are focused in human explorations, whereas “Nope” is more scattershot with its storytelling. The filmmaker touches on an array of subplots and intriguing ideas (the dangerous indifference of show business, mankind’s disparate reactions to a life-altering situation) but attempts too many between a visceral, gripping first half and the more conventional and rousing second.
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The supporting characters are a mixed bag: Perea’s frazzled geek-squad dude adds to the movie’s dark humor, though Yeun’s modern P.T. Barnum is an interesting soul not developed enough. But the dynamic of Kaluuya and Palmer power “Nope” just as much as the overarching mysteries.
OJ is a laconic sort yearning to keep his family’s legacy going, Emerald sees the ranch as low priority on her list of side hustles, yet both grow on you in their slow-burn reconnection. Palmer especially is a fountain of magnetic energy, and Kaluuya, like usual, leaves his heart right on screen. He also gets one of the most sensational little moments, in a scene that essentially gives the movie its whimsical title.
With “Nope,” Peele showcases a new sense of blockbuster flair while maintaining his signature gift for twisted modern relevance.
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