Friday 26 August 2022

Crazy horses: "Nope"

Jordan Peele has taken vast sums of studio money to make big-screen entertainment out of his own doubts and ambivalence, that which keeps him awake at night. In the guise of a multiplex horror-thriller, 2017's
Get Out worried away at the issue of where America was really at as the Obama era gave way to the time of Trump. 2019's Us was a popcorn movie predicated on the growing gap between rich and poor, and its maker's own status as a newly moneyed Black creative. Now comes Nope, a summer-season alien-invasion movie that also doubles as a state-of-the-industry address. Its title is a funny little mantra clung to by horse-wrangling refusenik hero OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) as a survival mechanism of sorts, but it also seems to be coming from behind the camera, out of the mouth of a filmmaker who's taken a long hard look at the business in the course of his rapid, half-decade rise to prominence, and tried to fathom out what does and doesn't work at a time when there is a lot that doesn't work. Perhaps that makes Nope sound a bit too much like inside-baseball, or stocktaking. To be clear, there is spectacle here: alien craft descending from the heavens, a chimp running bloodily amok, a final-reel chase between a lonesome cowboy on horseback and that nefarious UFO. But it's set within an awareness of what it is to have to operate in the corporate theme park of 21st century Hollywood, with its unprecedented ability to construct ever-bigger dreams and nightmares. What Peele has brought to these three films is a keen critical intelligence, a Kaluuya-esque side-eye tracking the shifts, good and bad, in the world beyond the soundstage. In doing so, he's brought about what feels like an entirely new subgenre: the event movie that invites, nay demands, further reading.

UFOs, of course, offer an opportunity for a tremendous, all-encompassing overview. Here is a list of some of the things Jordan Peele has seen, heard and hoovered up these past few years, all of which factor into Nope to a greater or lesser degree: the catalogue of alien-invasion movies and those endless cable shows on UFOlogy; the marginalised place of Black creatives within the studio system, and the indifferent-to-dismissive attitudes shown towards Black creatives by certain Caucasian creatives; the eeriness of a blackout (so common to California) and the eeriness of empty sets; schoolboys' tales of dropping a penny from the roof of the Empire State Building, or a franc from the top of the Eiffel Tower; the viral video "Too Many Cooks"; industry tittle-tattle about cursed projects and onscreen deaths, injuries, psychological trauma, the kind of unnerving shoptalk to make you never want to work in this town again. It is a lot, in other words, and Universal, doubtless persuaded by the healthy budget-to-profit ratios of Get Out and Us, have been nothing if not accommodating to Peele's requests and concerns, forking out for the construction of the isolated New Mexico ranch OJ shares with sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), a studio complex reconfigured into a literal theme park (perfect setting for a big finale), an office with a secret chamber built into its walls, stories within stories within stories. For much of its two hours, Nope resembles a portmanteau film like Twilight Zone: The Movie (surely another influence, given its own chequered production history, and Peele's work on the rebooted series) turned on its head and vigorously shaken before us: everything comes tumbling out.

This will likely throw anybody led by the trailers to expect another Independence Day. (Different film, less neurotic times.) Nope requires patient sifting, some critical intelligence on the viewer's part. The good news: as in his first two features, Peele gets the micro stuff right, nimbly sketching a credible sibling relationship between the taciturn Kaluuya and the outgoing Palmer, and their place in the long grass on the Hollywood fringes. As late as the finale, Nope is generating detail delicious enough to light up the Spielberg who made Close Encounters: clock the imminent alien incursion signalled by the sudden slowing of a Slurpee machine, one of those throwaway inserts that gains in potency from the cinemagoer's proximity to such dayglo dreamweavers. Yet the bulk of Nope's scenes are subject to deeply eccentric rhythms. Chapter headings pop up out of nowhere, underlining the sense of scrambled portmanteau. Supporting characters drift in and out of focus, occasioning one expert gotcha - the suggestion this alien invasion is under way twenty minutes before it actually is. Here, you feel Peele stretching his arms and legs and taking advantage of the leeway writer-directors get when their first two movies have sailed past $100m at the domestic box office. (When you bring in that kind of money for your employers, you earn the right to say nope to notes.) The bigger question mark hovering over Nope is whether the attempt to connect this alien invasion to the bigger picture of an industry in flux and turmoil is anything more than a wild, Richard Kelly-like swing for the fences.

Peele continues to excel with setpieces, as illustrated by the events of the sitcom-within-the-film: a heightened vision of a notionally controlled environment spiralling out of control, supremely well marshalled by Peele himself. (An aside: Nope is the film that explains why, unlike his erstwhile comedy partner Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele has never appeared on Whose Line Is It Anyway?) What such a setpiece connects to, precisely, is up for grabs. The screenplays for Get Out and Us were tighter, certainly; Nope feels rangy indeed in comparison, forever dismissing the idea of settling into recognisable or reassuring narrative shape. It may be telling that this is the first Peele film to have been specifically made for IMAX (which entails some glaring product placement come the final reel): everything feels spaced out, and sometimes a little hazy with that. I couldn't recap exactly how our heroes see off the invaders, for one, although this rearguard action yields several of the most extraordinary mythopoetic images of the season. (Obvious observation: this is also the first Peele film where the storyboard got more work than the script.) Points for being a studio movie that, even before setting Michael Wincott to singing "Purple People Eater", moves in odd, idiosyncratic, sometimes mystifying ways; points, too, for being a summer movie actively engineered to provoke post-screening discussion. (Overheard in the foyer after I emerged: "What was the significance of the chimp?", a question more movies should prompt, really.) Even if Peele can't quite lasso his wilder ideas into place, and some of his thought bubbles escape the film entirely, it is still cheering to see a big Hollywood movie that has this many ideas on the loose - and a great deal of fun watching its prime mover at least trying to wrangle them into submission.

Nope is playing in cinemas nationwide.

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