There’s a reason virtually nothing is opening in movie theaters this week - virtually nothing, that is, except “Nope,” the new sci-fi epic from writer, director and producer Jordan Peele. Based on the success of Peele’s Oscar-winning horror debut “Get Out” and its follow-up “Us,” the filmmaker’s name alone has the power to strike fear into the hearts of studio heads and film distributors with a competing product to sell. And so a wide berth has been given to Peele’s latest, a stylishly creepy alien-invasion tale starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer.
Fittingly for a movie so big-footed it has scared away almost all comers, you’re going to want to see “Nope” on the largest screen possible, and with the best and biggest sound system. Set on a remote ranch in the picturesque California desert town of Agua Dulce, the film centers on siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (Kaluuya and Palmer), Hollywood horse trainers who experience an unearthly visitation. “Nope” has been hand-tooled for the kind of presentation you can only get in a real theater - preferably Imax, to take full advantage of the film’s striking production design and eerie sound mix, which ranges from a thunderous, cinderblock-shaking roar to the kind of hush that isn’t so much a stillness as a sonic vacuum: the kind of silence in which you hear nothing but your own heartbeat. Kudos to sound designer Johnnie Burn (a BAFTA nominee for “The Favourite”), who deserves to be first in line for next year’s Oscars.
Before settling into its unsettling groove, “Nope” must dispense with some perfunctory backstory involving the insolvency of the Haywoods’ horse-wrangling business - who makes westerns anymore? - and the mysterious death of their father (Keith David) six months before the main action gets underway. We learn that OJ is a laconic cowboy type; Emerald is a talker, and often rather funny. There’s also a subplot involving a former child actor (Steven Yeun) from a 1990s sitcom starring a chimpanzee that infamously went berserk (in suitably horrific, bloody fashion), but that narrative pretty much goes nowhere. Now the proprietor of a Wild West-themed tourist attraction in the desert, Yeun’s character feels shoehorned into a tight story that’s probably better off without him. (Or, alternatively, he deserves his own separate movie.)
Things pick up as OJ and Emerald decide they need to document some of the unexplained aerial phenomena (UAPs) they have lately begun encountering around their ranch: a cloud that never moves and a dark, saucerlike object that can be glimpsed slicing through it just behind the photogenic hills. Not just document, but potentially monetize, by capturing footage they have dubbed the “Oprah shot”: an unimpeachable, high-quality image that someone will pay for. When it becomes clear that they’re dealing with something much stranger and deadlier than they originally thought, their plan evolves from making a quick buck to saving the Earth.
In that sense, at least, “Nope” feels like a throwback, and in a good way. It’s an old-school creature feature, replete with a creature that causes electrical blackouts, but defies the stereotype of the little green man. And it gets a big jolt of contemporary juice from the fact it’s set in moviemaking country. When OJ and Emerald realize they can’t handle the mystery on their own, they team up with a 20-something specialist in surveillance systems from a chain electronics store (Brandon Perea) and a grizzled guerrilla cameraman with a hand-wound film camera (Michael Wincott).
It’s a nod to the past, the present and the future of moviemaking, all at once.
The acting here is quite good, particularly by Kaluuya, who exudes the strong, silent air of a modern Gary Cooper, all shrugs and monosyllables, and Palmer, who is his much more expressive foil. But “Nope” ultimately belongs to its director, not its actors. Whether we’re watching some heavy CGI in the sky or flashback scenes featuring a rampaging primate (played by Terry Notary in an impressive motion-capture performance) or simply Kaluuya on horseback - a new kind of western hero in an orange hoodie - Peele tells his story visually, not verbally. One particularly idiosyncratic sequence features OJ and Emerald setting up a warning system of colorful inflatable dancing men - the kind you sometimes see outside car dealerships - around the perimeter of their property. It’s quintessential Peele: memorably surreal, spooky and a little bit silly.
The dialogue is not so important but features the title word prominently, spoken by OJ and Emerald in response to what they see. You might find yourself saying “nope,” too, once or twice, in a way that’s really tantamount to saying “yes” to “Nope’s” shivery pleasures, which feel both oldfangled and new.
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Three and one-half stars. Rated R. At theaters. Contains coarse language throughout, some violence and bloody images. 131 minutes.
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.