Jordan Peele’s “Nope” gets a yes vote.


Jordan Peele's "Nope" gets a yes vote.


(3.5 stars)

There’s a reason there’s practically nothing in theaters this week – practically nothing, that is, except for “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 sequel Us, the filmmaker’s name alone has the power to strike fear in the hearts of studio executives and distributors with a competing product. And so, Peele’s latest, a stylishly spooky alien invasion tale starring Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, was given a wide berth.

Appropriately for a film so big-footed it scared off almost all comers, you’ll want to see Nope on the biggest screen possible and with the best and biggest sound system. Set on a remote ranch in the quaint California desert town of Agua Dulce, the film follows siblings OJ and Emerald Haywood (Kaluuya and Palmer), Hollywood horse trainers, who experience an otherworldly visit. “Nope” was hand-engineered for the kind of presentation you can only get in a real cinema – preferably Imax, to take full advantage of the film’s stunning production design and eerie sound mix, which ranges from a thunderous, cinderblock-shaking roar to the Kind of silence that’s less silence than sonic vacuum: the kind of silence where you hear nothing but your own heartbeat. Kudos to sound designer Johnnie Burn (a BAFTA nominee for “The Favourite”), who deserves to be number one at next year’s Oscars.

Before “Nope” settles into its unsettling groove, it has to do without a superficial backstory involving the bankruptcy of the Haywoods’ horse fighting company – who makes westerns anymore? — and the mysterious death of her father (Keith David) six months before the main action begins. We learn that OJ is a laconic cowboy guy; Emerald is a talker and often quite funny. There’s also a subplot involving a former child actor (Steven Yeun) from a 1990s sitcom starring a chimp who notoriously went berserk (in an appropriately horrifying, bloody way), but that narrative pretty much goes nowhere. As the owner of a Wild West tourist attraction in the desert, Yeun’s character finds himself drawn into a tight story that is probably better off without him. (Or alternatively, he deserves his own movie.)

Things pick up speed when OJ and Emerald decide they need to document some of the unexplained aerial phenomena (UAPs) they’ve been encountering around their ranch lately: a cloud that never moves and a dark, saucer-like object , which can be cut through the photogenic hills directly behind. Not just documenting, but potentially monetizing by capturing footage they’ve dubbed the “Oprah shot”: an unassailable, high-quality image someone will pay for. When it becomes clear that they are dealing with something far stranger and deadlier than they originally thought, their quick buck plan to save Earth unfolds.

In that sense at least, “Nope” feels like a throwback, and in a good way. It’s an old-school creature feature, stuffed with a creature that causes blackouts but defies the little green man stereotype. And it gets a big jolt of contemporary juice from the fact that it’s set in filmmaking land. Realizing they can’t solve the mystery alone, OJ and Emerald team up with a 20-something specialist in surveillance systems for an electronics store chain (Brandon Perea) and a gray-haired guerrilla cameraman with a hand-held camera (Michael Wincott).

It is a tribute to the past, the present and the future of filmmaking at the same time.

The acting here is quite good, especially from Kaluuya, who exudes the strong, still air of a modern Gary Cooper, all shrug and monosyllabic, and Palmer, who is his much more expressive counterpart. But “Nope” ultimately belongs to its director, not its actors. Whether we’re watching heavy CGI scenes in the sky or flashback scenes featuring a rampaging primate (played by Terry Notary in a stunning motion capture performance) or just Kaluuya on horseback – a new breed of western hero in an orange hoodie – Peele tells his story visually, not verbally. In one particularly idiosyncratic sequence, OJ and Emerald set up a warning system of colorful, inflatable, dancing men — the kind you sometimes see outside of car dealerships — around their property. It’s quintessential Peele: memorably surreal, creepy and a little silly.

The dialogue isn’t that important, but prominently features the title word spoken by OJ and Emerald in response to what they see. You might also say “no” once or twice, in a way that is really tantamount to saying “yes” to trembling pleasures that feel both old-fashioned and new.

R In the theaters of the region. Contains rough language, some violence and gory imagery throughout. 131 minutes.

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