DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
It’s FRESH AIR. After delving into the horrors lurking beneath the surface of American life in “Get Out” and “Us,” writer and director Jordan Peele ventures into alien sci-fi territory with his new thriller titled ” nope”. The film, which hits theaters this week, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as siblings witnessing what could be an extraterrestrial visitor to the California desert. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The title of Jordan Peele’s clever and subversive new thriller ‘Nope’ is muttered a lot by on-screen characters, usually in frightened response to the really big, really bad thing they see flying at the -above. This is Peele’s take on a UFO thriller, his nod homage to classic stories of alien invaders like “War of the Worlds” and “Encounters of the Third Kind.” But as you’d expect from the writer-director of “Get Out” and “Us,” who used the horror genre to tell stories about racism and class oppression. “No” also has something topical on its mind, and figuring out what it is is part of the fun. For now, let’s just say it has something to do with the movies themselves.
The story is set in the wide open desert of Agua Dulce, which is about 80 miles north of Los Angeles and is a popular filming location in Hollywood. The two leads are a sibling duo who own a ranch and also work as horse trainers on movie and TV sets. Daniel Kaluuya plays stoic, taciturn brother Otis Haywood Jr., who comes by OJ in one of the script’s most deadpan asides. In contrast, her sister Em, played by a terrific Keke Palmer, is full of warmth and energy. In this scene, she and her brother are fighting over a horse on a platter, and Em explains the history of their family business.
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KEKE PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a film was a two-second clip of a black man on a horse? And this man is my great-great-grandfather.
DANIEL KALUUYA: (As OJ Haywood) Great.
PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) There’s another great-grandfather. But that’s why at Haywood Ranch, as the only black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood, we like to say from the moment the pictures could move, we had skin in the game.
CHANG: Another major character here is Jupe Park, played by Steven Yeun, who runs a kitsch Wild West-themed amusement park in Agua Dulce near the Haywoods ranch. Jupe was once a child actor in a mid-’90s family sitcom built around a chimpanzee until the show was canceled after a horrific on-set tragedy. Between that and the horse feuds, Peele clearly questions Hollywood’s long history of animal-related accidents and abuse. What all of this has to do with a possible alien invasion may seem confusing at first, but Peele gradually brings the connection to light.
Soon, this flying saucer emerges from behind the clouds and flies over the desert landscape, triggering power outages and raining down all kinds of misery. But Peele cleverly prevents us from taking a look at it very early on. He learned the crucial lesson from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” that the less we see of the monster early on, the more frightening and effective the buildup will be. And like “Jaws,” “Nope” becomes a double-edged thriller in which the saucer hovering overhead is both chasing and being chased by the people scurrying on the ground below. . But the film also plays like a Western with its horses and ranches and, finally, its story of a motley crew coming together to mount one last stand against a monstrous threat.
The other Spielberg classic that Peele leans heavily on here is “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Much like Richard Dreyfuss’ character in that film, OJ and Em, along with two unlikely allies aptly played by Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott, become obsessed with their otherworldly visitors. But they don’t just want to find out the truth. They are determined to capture visual proof that what they see is real. It’s here that “No” becomes a kind of cautionary tale in a way that dovetails with Peele’s broader critique of Hollywood. It challenges our sometimes insane attraction to the show, whether we met it in real life or in a big-budget summer movie like this.
Not everything works in “No”. After a beautifully controlled build-up and a truly thrilling mid-section, the film’s third act falls apart a bit as Peele tries to tie all of his big ideas together. But it’s nice to see a big-budget summer movie that actually has ideas. And Peele’s confidence as a filmmaker seems to grow with each film. A scene in which OJ rides a horse with the you-know-what nipping at his heels is reminiscent of nothing more than the famous Cary-Grant-versus-crop-duster sequence in Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest.” In “Get Out” and “Us”, Peele immersed us in dark funhouses of horror. In “No”, he has the talent to let terror settle in broad daylight. And no less than its petrified characters, you might find it very hard to look away.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.
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