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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Nope"

The key to Jordan Peele’s Nope is a subplot that may puzzle a lot of viewers. It involves a fictional 1990s sitcom called Gordy’s Home, about a family that lives with a trained chimpanzee, and how one of its primate actors went nuts one day and brutally attacked everyone in the TV studio. Nope is not a movie about a killer chimp, but within this monkey’s rampage are all the grander themes of Peele’s film.

This is especially apparent in the character of former child actor Rick “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a survivor of the Gordy incident who has leveraged his cult notoriety into a Wild West theme park deep in the dusty California desert. Jupe has contacted a Hollywood horse trainer named OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), who has fallen on hard times: His dad (Keith David) recently died in a freak accident, one of his horses nearly kicked an actress on a commercial shoot (sound familiar?), and now he’s forced to sell his animals to keep the family ranch afloat.

OJ and his sister Emerald (a scene-stealing Keke Palmer) have enough problems as it is, but now there’s something lurking in the clouds above the farm, a stealthy spacecraft that seems to be causing storms, sparking power outages and spooking the few remaining horses. As OJ and Emerald are buying security cameras at a nearby electronics store, one of the employees, Angel (Brandon Perea), begins to pry and is suddenly swept up in their mission to capture the image of an extraterrestrial.

Peele’s 2017 breakthrough Get Out immediately established itself as one of the great horror films of recent years, was a watertight blend of bruising social commentary and edge-of-your-seat suspense. His follow-up Us, meanwhile, was an intriguing, visually sumptuous allegory that got weighed down by an overabundance of central metaphors.

Nope straddles the line between the two. It’s a funny, well-paced, refreshingly weird big-budget entertainment, but it sometimes falls victim to Peele’s Big Ideas. He introduces so many detours and fringe characters that, by the time we’ve reached the climax, they’re practically dangling like the string of multicolored flags that has itself become a visual motif. Peele finally pulls those threads taut in Nope’s final scenes, and while the pieces come together in a clever way, it sometimes feels like logic and emotion have been sacrificed in order to achieve that cleverness.

But the best stretches of Nope recall golden era Spielberg — most obviously Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Poltergeist, but also Jaws and E.T., all of which ground their characters in mundane, recognizable worlds before introducing creatures from another realm. It’s also impossible to miss the allusions to M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs: Peele seems to be humming its tune note for note, though he course-corrects before repeating some of that earlier film’s biggest missteps.

But back to Gordy, who I can’t stop thinking about. He’s the tragic figure at the center of an otherwise enjoyable summer movie; he and the bizarre sitcom in which he’s trapped represent the inherent lunacy of the entertainment industry, and of man’s folly in believing that intellect is more powerful than pure animal instinct. Nope feels antithetical to the major studio films being made now, not only because it refuses to be a predictable, crowd pleasing blockbuster but because it is, in its own way, a withering commentary about the very machinery that produces crowd pleasing blockbusters.
Nathan Weinbender is one of the film critics heard on Spokane Public Radio’s “Movies 101,” Friday evenings at 6:30 here on KPBX.