Jordan Peele’s strange, muddled, indigestible new UFO mystery looks like it had a good fairy and a dodgy fairy present at the birth. The good fairy is Steven Spielberg, to whose Close Encounters and Jaws the film pays an overt tribute. The dodgy fairy is M Night Shyamalan, of Signs and The Happening: the sometimes brilliant, sometimes exasperating high-concept showman whose influence is also present – but unacknowledged, un-homaged. It feels like an event movie billboard in the Shyamalan style, all about the prerelease conjecture and trailer buzz: what on earth can it be about?
The answer, at the end of two and a quarter hours is … a great deal. Tons. Peele’s script is crammed with about 210% more material than he can meaningfully cohere into a single script with any dramatic weight and point. Front-loading a movie with witty imagery and narrative premise without enough of a satisfyingly worked-through plot to come behind was what made his second film, Us, less than his sensationally scary and funny debut Get Out. This is another step back, and it’s a shame that there isn’t much that’s interesting for his star Daniel Kaluuya to do – although it does periodically use his famous charismatic stare.
The title would appear to refer to the single panicky word uttered by the hero in the face of supernatural incursions: his refusal to accept the evidence of his senses. Nopewatchers online have also wondered if it means “not of planet Earth”. Kaluuya plays OJ Haywood, an animal wrangler who with his sister Emerald (a high-voltage performance from Keke Palmer) runs a ranch in the Santa Clarita valley in California, supplying horses for movie and TV productions. These two, it seems, are the great-great-great-grandchildren of the unnamed black jockey who appeared in Eadweard Muybridge’s pioneering chronophotograph moving-image of a horse: the great ancestor of all film stars, whose history has been erased – like so many people of colour in film history.
Their father, Otis Sr (Keith David), died six months before the action begins in an unearthly and unexplained event. There appears to be an intergalactic visitor in the heavens above the ranch, attracted and yet also repelled by certain distinct factors. OJ and Emerald engage the help of a surveillance-tech guy called Angel (Brandon Perea) to establish this entity’s existence, and also persuade a renowned cinematographer, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott) to take celluloid movie footage of whatever it is up there.
So far, so intriguing – and so cinephilic. But wait. There is a whole other Hollywood-showbiz-related weirdo thing in the valley, right near the ranch, and that too is pulsing out a disturbed karmic energy relating to the UFO. Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) is a former 90s child star whose brand became poisoned when a chimp ran amok on the set of his show in front of a live studio audience, killing all the actors but him. His career went south, and now he runs a cheesy wild-west theme park in the desert, with horses. What a startling, complex story Jupe’s is: dense in postmodern irony and poignancy. Perhaps the whole movie should have been about him and not OJ and Emerald. Or about OJ and Emerald and not him. But it’s about all of them.
There are plenty of bold and riveting images in Nope; bizarre dreamlike iterations. Kaluuya and Palmer have, singly, a cool self-possession and address to the camera, but no really compelling chemistry as siblings or anything else. There is something clotted and heavy about this film, with sadly not enough of the humour for which Peele justly became celebrated in his double-act days with Keegan-Michael Key. It’s not the positive response I wanted to have.
• Nope is released on 22 July in the US, and 12 August in the UK.