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Nope (2022)

Since the moment pictures could move we had skin in the game. In 1998, on the soundstage for the television sitcom Gordy’s Home, the titular chimpanzee (Terry Notary) attacks several of its co-stars after being startled by the pop of a balloon. The show’s youngest actor, Ricky ‘Jupe’ Park (Jacob Park) hides under a table and is unharmed, though traumatised by the experience. The chimp finds Jupe and extends his hand for their usual fist bump, before being shot dead by authorities. In the present day, ranch owner Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David) trains and handles horses for film and TV productions. When he is killed by a quarter through his eye that falls inexplicably from the sky while astride his white horse Ghost, his children Otis Jr. aka OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald aka Em (Keke Palmer) inherit the ranch. OJ tries to keep the business afloat and maintain his father’s legacy, while Em seeks fame and fortune in Hollywood. The Haywoods claim that the unnamed black jockey in Plate 626 from Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion sequence of photographs (the first moving images) was their great-great-grandfather. Six months later, on the set of a commercial with prominent cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) who prides himself on obtaining impossible images, one of the horses reacts violently when the crew startles it, and the Haywoods are fired from the project. The ranch’s financial woes have forced OJ to sell horses to Jupe (Steven Yuen) who operates the nearby Jupiter’s Claim, a small Western theme park where he exploits his story of the Gordy’s Home massacre for profit. Jupe offers to buy the ranch from the Haywoods, an offer which Em encourages OJ to accept. That night, when the Haywoods notice the electricity supploy fluctuating and their horses vanishing and violently reacting to an unknown presence they notice a UFO in the form of a flying saucer that’s been devouring their horses and spitting out inorganic debris, which must have caused their father’s death. Motivated by a desire for wealth and fame, the siblings decide to document evidence of the UFO’s existence and buy surveillance equipment from Fry’s Electronics where employee Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) suspects what they’re up to and sets up the technology, getting involved in the trap to plan the UFO. Electrical interference from the UFO and a praying mantis on one of the cameras prevent them from getting clear footage but Angel notices a nearby cloud that never moves. They reckon it must be the UFO’s hiding place. Jupe introduces a live show in Jupiter’s Claim and plans to use a horse as bait to lure out the UFO – after having fed it the horses he bought from the Haywoods, in front of a paying audience. The UFO arrives in the arena but devours Jupe and the entire audience. OJ deduces that the UFO is not a spaceship rather a predatory territorial creature which eats anything that looks directly at it. Em wants Holst to capture the impossible image of Jean Jacket, as they christen the creature hovering over them … I carry a planet of regret on my shoulders. The chapter divisions provide signs but sometimes they misguide us – Ghost. Clover. Gordy. Lucky. Writer/director Jordan Peele on his third feature outing already has a unique selling point: his point of view. Uniting Muybridge’s revolutionary images of an unnamed black horseman with slick references to Buck and the Preacher and Duel in Diablo in a text proliferating with ideas from cinema, as it channels everything from Jaws to The Wizard of Oz, westerns, sci fi, evolution, animal behaviour, UFOlogy and photographic history featuring unique protagonists whose business is the only black-run horse wrangling outfit in Hollywood. The Yuen storyline (Gordy’s House) seems like a shaggy chimpanzee story, leading nowhere much and planted for little reason other than to introduce an Asian protagonist, another Hollywood sideshow and child actor tragedy (what is with the face of his co-star, hiding under a veil like Fedora?). But the film starts on the set of this fabled TV spectacular when Gordy (Terry Notary) does something so utterly horrific and leaves the youthful star unharmed in a bloodbath of animal carnage. It turns out to be a synecdoche in a chain of meaning, a teachable lesson in the dynamics with creatures beyond our control: it’s also planting the payoff and the idea of the man-eating monster alien (we may share DNA and all that good stuff but that don’t mean other creatures are our actual friends. Okay!). The insight from the horse bolting when a lens is put up to his eye is the life-saving lesson that correctly applied leads to the defeating of the foreigner in the valley. Don’t look at the monster or else. Black and white people alike have a common enemy. Expect the unexpected. There is something strange going on out there. This could go in any direction and frequently does in a text about an exploitable spectacle in this lonesome gulch. The casting is genius. How could we have foreseen Wincott becoming a cross between John Huston and a latterday Warren Oates (well, in fairness, we did, twenty-five years ago, and thought it would happen quicker, but still); or who would anticipate Donna Mills essaying a version of herself – a superannuated soap actress on a busman’s holiday? If we have an issue it’s not aesthetic, necessarily, it’s with the dialogue delivery particularly in the early stages – representation is all very well but blackspeak from Palmer’s motormouth is not clear communication and it’s (to say the least) ironic that figuring out the story and background is really hard work before the visuals clarify the verbiage in a narrative that serves as a synoptic history of cinema and the role of black people in its development. It’s a shame because it upsets the intricate sound design by Johnnie Burn and the score by Michael Abels. After Get Out, the affectless Kaluuya seems to be a muse for this mysterious storytelling style which in this iteration enlarges on both mechanical and digital recording devices as they combine to produce proof of alien visitation. And the horse is the getaway vehicle of choice, appropriate for the descendants of the unidentified Bahamian jockey memorialised from the nineteenth century which the Haywoods claim as their own: this is about species identification in all kinds of ways. Perea is the breakout star, his Angel is a handsome lovelorn techie Ancient Aliens fan with frosted hair and guts for glory. Hoyte van Hoytema is Peele’s DP and in this dusty environment where the protagonists wear band teeshirts and set hoodies while neon-bright flags wave in the breeze and one cloud has been sitting in the same position for months he eventually shoots the impossible pictures of the sea-creature-like predator in the sky that the Ahab- (or Quint-like) cinematographer played by Wincott sacrifices himself to obtain. Looking it in the eye might kill us but we can’t take our eyes off this. Nope

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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