by Toby Woollaston

Verdict: An entertaining head-scratcher that sometimes over-extends its reach.

Writer/director, Jordan Peele, has once again created a provocative filmgoing experience from a seemingly random set of cultural commodities. He’s a filmmaker not afraid to throw a lot at the screen. Some of it sticks, but the stuff that doesn’t never feels wasted, although often requires stepping back for better perspective. With Nope, his third feature, Peele has expanded his canvas, both metaphorically and literally. Where his first film, Get Out, was modest in reach, his second, Us, widened its scope and went bonkers across America. Now with Nope, he has gone otherworldly and stitched together a curious mix of pop-culture artefacts into a chilling sci-fi thriller western. Yes, it’s a bunch of things.

Daniel Kaluuya, Peele’s Get Out star, returns as OJ Haywood, who along with his sister, Emerald (Keke Palmer) run a California ranch where the horses are trained to work in nearby Hollywood. Early in the film, Emerald says to a film crew “Since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.”—referencing the Black rider atop the horse of Edward Muybridge’s famous 1878 photography experiment, considered the first motion picture ever made. This racially-charged comment hits on one of the many themes that this film appears to push.

But the themes that follow are more esoteric and murky in their delivery. When OJ hears the howling wind in the sky above and the sound of terrified screams that spook the horses, he heads across the valley to investigate. There he finds the Western-themed tourist trap, run by Jupe (Minari’s Steven Yeun) and a horrific aftermath that shifts the film from straight-up sci-fi thriller into something deeper and more abstract.

While the plot is relatively straightforward, Nope’s meaning becomes increasingly muddled. It’s wholly apparent that Peele is trying to tell us something—but what exactly, remains cloudy and tantalisingly beyond reach. Commodification, exploitation, viewing and consumption are all themes explored by this film, but to what end, it’s difficult to tell given the vagueries laid down by Peele.

What is clear though is that Nope is an ambitious, vibrant, mix of genres and influences which, for the most part, is thrilling to experience even when it doesn’t hit the mark. But there is a heady, unquantifiable message buried deep within Nope’s dusty scape that renders it a chin-scratcher and might frustrate some viewers.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.