This weekend, three years after the release of Us, Jordan Peele returns to the screen—and a greatly changed world—with his latest effort, Nope. His new horror movie is many things: a masterful, atmospheric pressure-cooker; a full blown creature-feature; and an homage to John Ford and John Huston’s westerns, with the beautiful vistas of rolling Agua Dulce, California hills serving as its backdrop. But while the film’s trailers have made it seem like a natural follow-up to Get Out and Us, his third film marks a major departure. It’s intensely “popcorn,” and visually arresting—but, unlike his two previous films, it isn’t overtly political. It’s “just” entertainment: a sumptuous, creepy, inventive monster movie, at once a step up in scale and a reining in of purpose. It just may be a signal that he has become tired, or bored with the sociopolitical horror that he (inadvertently?) made a calling card, and an industry unto itself over the past five years. One could come away from the film reading the title as Peele’s message to an audience that may have come expecting more of the same from the auteur.
Peele’s directorial debut, 2017’s Get Out, was a $4.5 million dollar miracle that grossed $255 million and garnered four Oscar nominations, winning one for his original screenplay. His first film fused traditional “body snatcher” tropes with a commentary on the underlying racism of Obama-era wealthy white liberals who know all the “ally” lingo. Two years later, he followed up with Us, which pumped the stakes and scale with a dense, knotty movie about class in America, one that went beyond the strictures of race to test the foundations of a country through a complicated mythology that literally separated Jacob Riis’ halves of society. But it also followed in the footsteps of Get Out as a film that used horror as a lens through which to interrogate larger Important Questions.
Peele didn’t invent the wheel of sociopolitical horror, but he updated the specs. From the beginning, his influences have been clear: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and most of all, Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone—classics that used sci-fi and horror as a tool to explain the world through metaphor. Peele brought this approach into the modern era, and it proved to be a device perfectly crafted for this moment in American life, in which nostalgia and intellectual genre tinge all popular art, and everything is politics. His blend of thought-provoking horror took off, and spurred many imitators over the past few years.
He continued playing in this area as a producer, through his company, Monkeypaw Productions. Monkeypaw was behind 2019’s lackluster Twilight Zone reboot (in which Peele stepped into the shoes of his role model, Serling), while 2020’s Lovecraft Country on HBO used the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft as a text to explore the American history of racism, and Nia DaCosta’s 2021 reboot of Candyman used iconic IP to explore the gentrification of Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects. These works all had commendable aspects, but were critical misfires, lacking Peele’s eye and personal touch as they performed Jordan Peele karaoke. Meanwhile, the next three years would see a market glutted with films fusing genre fare and social commentary, greenlit in the wake of Get Out (See: Bad Hair, Them, and of course, Antebellum). Their directors and studios took his aesthetic and ran it into the ground, making it clear how hard it is to pull off what he accomplished. The elevator pitch of horror movies that are really about racism or misogyny became eye-roll and groan-inducing.
So where do you go when you’ve conquered the world, and the world has bitten your style? In America, and on the internet, we love to build artists up only to tear them down once their novelty has worn off (most recent example: Taika Waititi). It’s a problem very successful, pigeonholed artists have been railing against since the beginning of time. Dylan went electric. Paul Thomas Anderson made There Will Be Blood. Kanye threw out the playbook in Hawaii. The best comparison for Peele, in terms of career trajectory, is Kendrick Lamar, who kicked in the door with a note-perfect debut, followed that up with a brilliant, thousand-layer treatise that novelized the rap album, then responded to the accusation that he was a fussy, intellectual headphone rapper by rapping his ass off on a tracksuit and shell-toed, guttural album. Nope is Jordan Peele’s DAMN. It’s a film that you may finish for the first time and wonder, “What did I miss?” And the answer is either nothing or everything, because the point is reveling in the visceral pleasures of blockbuster-season genre.
“I don’t know why people can’t let me just make a movie”, Peele told GQ this week. “We got to do that big original blockbuster movie, and that in itself is part of what the movie’s about.” Those are the words of an artist rebelling against how he’s been labeled and defined by culture, an artist breaking away, ready for change and growth. Nope represents that natural evolution.
This isn’t to say it’s a movie without ideas, one that will undoubtedly be the subject of theorizing in film student term papers for years to come. It’s about apex predators and the primacy of nature, the struggle of man against the elements, facing impossible odds, ownership of art and a Sisyphusian pursuit of the perfect shot. But its messages are ambiguous and occluded in a way Peele’s first two efforts, and work as a producer, has not been. The ideas are more abstract and ephemeral, less intrinsic to its enjoyment.
It’s a spectacle about spectacles. There are traces of the classics Jaws, Alien, and Predator, a summer pantheon of which it may have just joined. The horse ranch in a gulch occupied by brother and sister (played by Daniel Kaluyaa and Keke Palmer), contending with an alien incursion, is the boat floating on the ocean, the space ship, the jungle, the claustrophobic stage in which man must face down an impossible adversary. Like the shark, and H.R. Geiger’s chestbursters, and the titular predator, Peele hides his threat for as long as possible, transforming the empty space of a placid, endless, cloud filled sky into menace. His camera placements, the life of the camera, the nearly unbearable noise of the film in IMAX, re-establishes his place as a master of tone setting and sensory experience, and establishes Nope as an elemental thrill machine.
It is a film that you feel, one that will live in your gut longer than your head— in the best possible way.