I love ambitious filmmakers, artists who are willing to throw caution to the wind and take big swings with new projects. They may not hit a home run every time, but the final products are more interesting than watching the 40th installment in some tired film franchise. For decades summer blockbusters have largely been from the Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Mission: Impossible, Toy Story or Fast and Furious universes. It’s refreshing when a writer-director creates his or her own stories populated by characters from his or her own imagination.
Jordan Peele struck box office gold in 2017 with his horror smash Get Out. The film grossed over $250 million on a $4.5 million budget. Those kinds of numbers make you a creative darling for film production companies. The clever script that combined scares and social commentary endeared him to film fans and critics alike. It impressed the entire film industry to the point that Peele carried home the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year. His 2019 follow-up Us once again lit up the box office and most film fans (myself included) deemed it a worthy follow-up to his debut hit.
In less than five years, Peele has gone from a popular comedian with a television variety show to a major American filmmaker. With the release of his latest film, NOPE, Peele has graduated to the ranks of summer tentpole filmmakers. Does NOPE complete an impressive trifecta of original horror films from a visionary writer-director? Or is this third effort from Peele a stumble compared to the likes of Get Out and Us?
The answer to those questions will depend on the adventurousness of the individual filmgoer. For me, NOPE was a breath of fresh cinematic air that kept me thoroughly entertained. I had no idea where the narrative was headed, and that’s an exhilarating feeling in a summer movie landscape littered with predictable sequels and mindless retreads. Is it the home run I’d hoped it would be? Not quite. The story falters toward the end, but it’s still one of the most thought-provoking summer blockbusters in years.
Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play siblings who inherit a horse ranch in California that was owned by their late father, a stuntman and horse wrangler in Hollywood. As they attempt to follow in his professional footsteps, they begin to encounter strange phenomena in the lonely gulch they call home. They enlist the help of a techie from a local big box store to record the oddities they are witnessing. And… I don’t want to say anymore because the less you know walking in the theater, the more you should enjoy this film.
I say “should enjoy” because NOPE is not your standard summer blockbuster. Some filmgoers prefer walking into a theater and knowing what they’ve paid for. It’s like eating the same dish every time you go to your favorite restaurant because you don’t want to ruin your night out by ordering something you might not like. NOPE is not cinematic comfort food. It goes places you don’t expect. It continually zigs when you expect it to zag. For some people, that’s refreshing, and they’re happy to go along for the ride. For others, it’s simply annoying and ultimately a disappointing night at the movies.
I found it a pleasure to see Peele working on such a grand scale. NOPE recalls the epic sweep of the 1970’s films of Steven Spielberg. Not just because of the relation of its subject matter to a Spielberg film of that era and not just because there are numerous homages to Jaws during its 135-minute runtime. It’s the size and the scope of the story-telling that reminds me of the master filmmaker’s early days. It’s the apparent fearlessness of taking that big swing.
In the end, NOPE may not be your jam. But, you need to see it on a huge screen. You need to get swept up in its story so you can decide for yourself. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I walked out of my screening. I can’t wait to see it again.
NOPE premiered at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles on July 18, 2022. It was released in theaters in the U.S. on July 22.