Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Cowboys and aliens


Written and directed by Jordan Peele

Spoilers: high

You know, people forget this, but the mystique of M. Night Shyamalan did not vanish in one sudden poof; it took years, and even after he lost it he could still score a hit with Signs, despite Signs being such a stupid messagey kludge of a movie.  Obviously, I bring this up for a reason: Jordan Peele has been courting Shyamalan comparisons since at least his second feature, Us, and with his third feature, the somewhat Signsesque Nope, he courts them so brazenly that I'm stumbling into a cliché to mention it.  The point is Peele shall likewise not fade overnight, and the good news is this means he still has time to establish a legacy for himself beyond "once, a new filmmaker took a superbly well-timed poke at the zeitgeist of the angry and/or self-flagellating half of what was then called America, after which he made some other movies, I suppose, none of which need be inventoried here."

Us, in any case, didn't poke at any zeitgeist, and wasn't designed toit's as weirdly indulgent, though not in exclusively bad ways, as sophomore slumps getbut it did make money, and it dutifully received its perplexed-but-positive notices, thanks to the social horror brand name its writer-director had cultivated.  Nope has done so again, despite even more indulgence.  Not intoxicating indulgence, however, nor even an inviting indulgence.  It's the indulgence of a filmmaker working on an issue without very much to actually say about it, and with the bare minimum narrative scaffolding to support a thesis still-unfinished. Us had, at least, some inscrutable passion, perhaps even passion for its own inscrutability.  Nope achieves the improbable status of being almost anti-interesting and anti-fun (the underlying message of this movie, taken seriously, is almost that you shouldn't want to watch it), despite being built out of several objectively-fascinating elements, such as UFOs, bloody chimp attacks, and Daniel Kaluuya.  Nope is straightforward, at least: it is, in fact, a surprisingly close knock-off of Jaws, masquerading as a riff on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the former ancestor obscured by the different iconography at play here (which is not especially like the iconography of Close Encounters, initially bearing a stronger kinship to Fox Mulder's office poster), but it is a Jaws knock-off at heart.  If it's a tiresomely deconstructive one, it's also one willing to make several recognizable lifts, including an idea from the finale of that film forced into the finale of this one via a new set of circumstances where it doesn't make sense.

So: in rural Southern California there exists the Haywood ranch, a family-owned business that trains movie horses, and which we are toldthough I think I'm alone on picking up that we're not necessary supposed to uncritically believe thisrepresents the physical legacy of one of cinema prehistory's very first subjects, the unknown black jockey in Plate 626 of the first collection of moving pictures, Eadweard Mubridge's 1878 photographic experiment and naturalist investigation, The Horse In Motion.  There's a lot of possibility here, for a movie that examined if this is a lie getting at a deeper truth, but this isn't ever that movie; as far as I can determine, the jockey connection is here, thematically, because the movie is partly about the exploitation of animals in motion pictures, partly about the exploitation of people, and because Peele thinks the image of a black dude riding majestically upon a horse is novel enough that it can be the point of an entire movie, and while we can agree it's rarer in film history than it should be, it's possible to quibble with how that image is integrated into a movie that, predominantly, is about that flying saucer.

Anyway: until recently the Haywood establishment has been run by Otis Haywood Sr. (Keith David), whose stewardship came to an abrupt end one night when a whole trash bin's worth of debris rained down on the ranch and a buffalo nickel, dropping like a bullet out of the sky, lodged itself in his skull.  His son, Otis Jr. (Kaluuya) was there to witness this, and afterwards the ranch passed to him and to his sister Em (Keke Palmer).  She's not enthusiastic about this, and after seeing his father die inexplicably before him, neither is O.J., who's sullen and barely able to communicate safety protocols to his Hollywood clientsthough, in fairness, they're some real dipshits, who appear to have lost the normal instinct of respecting the power of an animal eight times their size.  (Themes, you know.)  Between Em's overclocked, forced chipperness and O.J.'s depressive distraction, they lose their ranch's advertising gig, which is a big enough deal that they resort to selling off their horses to their neighbor, former child star Ricky "Jupe" Park (Steven Yeun), who intends to use them in the strange dream project to which his life's odd tangent has brought him, a hokey Old West theme park.  Of course, the main point of the scene at the commercial shoot was to introduce O.J. and Em to cinematographer Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), a cinematographer so renowned that he does junky TV spots, just like Roger Deakins does or, for that matter, Hoyte van Hoytema.  Well, the plot needs his schedule to be clear, though maybe his character would've had more traction if he'd actually abandoned a movie when he joins the Haywoods in their quest.

It begins when O.J. spies what might have been responsible for his father's death: a UFO that streaks across the night sky, arriving with a localized electromagnetic disturbance.  When Em's apprised of the situation, she determines the solution to all their woes is to capture some high-definition video of the phenomenon to sell to the media.  O.J. reluctantly assents, and after a trip to Fry's Electronics (the one with the spaceship lodged in the wall, of course) for some high-tech recording gear, they accidentally get stuck with a curious clerk named Angel (Brandon Torrea); a little later, they bring Antlers into the fold; and all along Jupe is on the margins, continually buying up horses they never see again, with big plans for his new show.

Look, this is marked for spoilers.  One of the curiouser structuring devices that Nope throws into its mixand there are at least four, none of which really work, between this one, one that breaks the film out into pseudo-chapters based on the name of whatever horse is featured in the sequence, an opening Bible quotation from one of the lesser-read prophets about the violence that is almost inescapably bound to the concept of "spectacle," and the aforementioned Muybridge imageryis the intercut flashbacks to Jupe's childhood as the kid star of a dopey sitcom (which is to say, a tired, laughless parody of a dopey sitcom rather than anything resembling a real one), which is apparently important enough for Peele to tease it in its first proper scene.  That sitcom, anyway, achieved popularity on the basis of the participation of its other star, a trained chimpanzee (played by a CGI effect that might as well have been handdrawn limited animation, and honestly might've had more thematic oomph if it were), but it achieved its everlasting infamy when said chimpanzee snapped and went on a deadly rampage.  Jupe watched the entire affair unfold from beneath a table, and his chimp friend, for unknowable reasons, spared him; thirty years later, he's convinced himself he'll be spared again.

Nope, I said, knocks off Jaws, and Close Encountersand, for that matter, King Kongand it knocks off none of them well, but maybe this is the really fundamental error of it: the sole character who's truly energized by the presence of the unknown, who experienced horror once and came out the other side of it with a belief that he could face it again, in other words, the Quint of the picture rolled up into a hybrid of Roy Neary and Carl Denham, is pushed as hard to the margins as any character who gets frequent flashbacks that don't tie into the plot could possibly be pushed.  Not really part of the movie, he rides some parallel track that ends well short of where the movie does.  Imagine Marion Crane but she was a tertiary character, then.  (It is, in fairness, a terrific scene, and one of two in this horror-adjacent film that can claim to be scary, though the other is a prank.)  But Jupe is interesting.  Jupe is actually strange, and Jupe is the only character who even has a memorable personalityor a backstory that's specified beyond boilerplate.  Jupe is practically the only character who ever even has a memorable stretch of dialogue, coming in the form of a bizarre and off-putting deflection towards the SNL sketch parody of his childhood trauma, when he waxes poetic about the incomparable talent of Chris Kataan, who played the chimpanzee.

You can see that Peele's goals for the project prohibit him from becoming more than the sum of his symbolismsomething something the violence inherent in the system, something something the danger and complicity of viewing "spectacle" (why, Jupe can only even relate to his own trauma by way of the obscene mockery of an insensitive culture)and so the genuine weirdness in Yeun's performance and the genuine emotion in his dangerous obsession must be kept well beyond arm's length, rendering him a figure of academic interest only.  Even that level isn't met by the actual central cast, who are a remarkably impersonal collection, seeming oddly repulsed at the prospect of actually interacting with each otherAngel's here mostly because he just won't leave, and his scene partnerships with the other three largely involve them attempting to ignore his presenceand there's never any particular sense of unifying motivation, because the proceedings are stripped early on of any sense of wonder in favor of Em's obnoxious Zoomer bluster and a blandly-pursued avarice that doesn't ever quite intersect with genuine human curiosity.  Antlers is at least into it, but only in the strictly symbolic mode of a cinematographer going after a perfect golden hour shot (he's also a bit of a feint, given that his possession of a throat full of gravelly dirt makes him sound more like Quint than Yeun does).  Kaluuya is too interesting an actor to be dull, and he manages to make it through by way of his weary, wary looks, along with the impression that O.J. loves his sister but doesn't really like her, and it's hard to blame him for that.  (A late-coming scene with a frenetic handshake between O.J. and Em feels like it comes out of completely different character dynamic.)  Of course, he's still a character named "O.J," an eyebrow-raising fact highlighted only the once, in a not-even-a-joke of a line from a blonde woman.  There's a line, "run, O.J., run!" and he does, on his bronco (a brown one, though).  Well, that's a sputtering gesture at something, isn't it?

That's kind of the whole filma grand collection of sputtering gesturessuperficially about something, and substantively about nothing, even itself.  It's a movie "about" a flying saucer that isn't particularly interested in flying saucers; Peele's unique spin on flying saucer mythology is to make it shockingly monstrous, and that barely matters (hell, it comes off like a dodge) because Nope can only very intermittently be a monster movie and when it does it's more like (and intentionally like) a poorly-conceived theme park ride.  Its sci-fi horror is never intended to cohere into any literal narrative; it's a framework for a collection of rules that don't need to make sense, or even need to be cool, so long as they bolster whatever hollow observations Nope's making about the darkness at the heart of humanity's need to be entertained.

Maybe that's why it isn't entertaining: there's a tendency to apologize for Peele's lesser works"he certainly knows how to make a real cinematic experience!"  And sure: Hoytema is a master cinematographer (his extraordinarily blue nights and warm dusty days make Nope a solid-looking motion picture), and by all means is Peele proficient at composition and, like, lens choices or whatever.  But Nope is even worse at being a "blockbuster" than it is an allegorical diorama: it's so detached and indifferent to its characters, plot, world-building, hell, the kind of basic physical plausibilities that even a gonzo sci-fi movie can't ignore (there are some things so central to everyday human experience, like "how wheels work," that you can't futz with them even for the cheapest of thrills), and ultimately anything that isn't all-caps THEME, that the proficiency of it almost makes it worse.  The imagery can work (the inside of the alien!), and, Goddamn, it shouldn't be possible to get bored with a space monster chasing a guy on a horse through a field of wacky waving arm inflatable tube men.  But the abstraction of every single element into an airless world of attention-hogging symbol means it can't even really stay weird.

Score: 4/10


  1. I'm seeing this next week. Excited to read this then. I liked Us more than Get Out, which puts me in a minority position.

    1. That is, indeed, unusual. Looking forward to seeing what you think about it! Hell, most people like it, I guess, so it's entirely possible you'll be on-consensus.