NOPE IMAX poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

NOPE IMAX poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

Rating: R
Stars: Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, Brandon Perea, Steven Yeun, Michael Wincott, Keith David, Terry Notary
Writer: Jordan Peele
Director: Jordan Peele
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Release Date: July 22, 2022

NOPE has a title and trailer that suggests it’s going to be about people reacting with unexpected common sense to horror movie tropes. That’s not what NOPE turns out to be.

This in itself isn’t a demerit; no movie should be judged by how it does or doesn’t adhere to its advertising, which is often created separate from the filmmakers. However, NOPE is an uneven mixed bag. Director/writer Jordan Peele has several good ideas, but by the time he lays them out and brings them together into the same story, we’re not as invested as we ought to be.

In the opening, set in 1998, we see a chimpanzee (played via motion capture by Terry Notary) covered in blood, next to an unmoving human body on a television studio set.

We will eventually discover exactly what this has to do with the main present-day plot. O.J. – short for Otis Jr. – Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) works with his father, Otis Sr. (Keith David) at their quasi-isolated Agua Dulce, CA ranch. Descendants of a pioneering black movie cowboy, the Haywoods pride themselves on training horses for films, TV, and commercials.

Steven Yeun in NOPE | ©2022 Universal Pictures

Steven Yeun in NOPE | ©2022 Universal Pictures

When Otis Sr. dies in a bizarre accident, O.J. inherits the ranch. Stoic and evidently not a great businessman, O.J. is still determined to keep things going. Six months after Dad’s death, O.J.’s younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) returns. Emerald is pretty, high-energy, self-centered, and has showbiz aspirations.

Down the road, there’s Jupiter’s Claim, a Western theme park run by former child actor Jupe (Steven Yeun). O.J. has been selling horses to Jupe to make ends meet, though he hopes to buy them back.

Then there’s some bad weather, weird electrical blackouts, and the possibility of something very strange going on in the vicinity. This inspires O.J. and Emerald to get a home surveillance system, which is installed by Angel (Brandon Perea), who is curious as to what’s happening.

For a while, NOPE plays like a very slow take on THE X-FILES, with characters pondering things that would be unsettling to experience but don’t feel all that shocking to genre film viewers.

There’s also a dash of sitcom sensibility with Emerald. Despite Palmer’s skills as a performer, and her ability to bring underlying emotion to Emerald’s surface hustle, the humor doesn’t work.

On the flip side, we’re almost never really scared. Conceptually, it’s frightening (once we learn what’s going on), but NOPE is hampered by an important recurrent special effect. The effect looks real, and as though it exists within the same frame as the live-action elements. However, the effect lacks a certain key quality, which in turn raises questions about the nature of the related plot twist.

NOPE poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

NOPE poster | ©2022 Universal Pictures

Kaluuya conveys great, quiet pain as O.J., but it’s hard to know exactly what the source of this is, current predicament aside. We’re unclear if he loves the horses but feels trapped by the business side of things, or if he wants to do something else altogether but feels duty-bound to his ancestral legacy.

Things get rolling in the third act. Peele wants to be delicate in how he weaves the disparate elements together. He handles some aspects of this with commendable subtlety, allowing us to draw our own inferences, though other parts require expository dialogue.

Peele has made an intriguing puzzle with NOPE. It’s gratifying when the pieces are put together, but the satisfaction is more intellectual than visceral.

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