‘Nope’: Every moment matters in Jordan Peele’s exhilarating new horror fable

The darkly beautiful sci-fi film manages to feel bold and original while paying homage to countless great movies.

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Emerald (Keke Palmer) thinks an unidentified flying object could be the family’s ticket to fame and riches in “Nope.”

Universal Pictures

“What did you see?”

“Something above the clouds that’s big.”

“How big?”

“Big.” – Exchange between sister and brother in “Nope.”

Jordan Peele’s masterfully audacious, wickedly funny and utterly outlandish sci-fi horror fable “Nope” is a classic example of a bold and original film that pays homage to a seemingly endless stream of great movies and yet is more than the sum of its parts.

When two siblings on a remote swath of land band together and come up with an ingenious and definitely crazy plan to defend themselves from an invading force, it’s reminiscent of “Signs.” When a mad genius with a singular mission is willing to sacrifice everything in the pursuit of the catch of his life, he reminds us of Quint from “Jaws.” When a supporting character spins a cringe-inducing, horrific story from the past that has you wincing and laughing at the same time, it’s vaguely reminiscent of the Santa story in “Gremlins” and the infamous “gold watch” story in “Pulp Fiction.”

‘Nope’

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Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Jordan Peele. Rated R (for language throughout and some violence/bloody images). Running time: 131 minutes. Opens Thursday in local theaters.

There are other moments that conjure up memories of “The Shining,” “Ghostbusters,” “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Poltergeist” and at least a half-dozen other films, and yet writer-director-co-producer Peele has once again delivered a work that feels fresh and darkly beautiful. Every slice of dialogue, every dramatic beat, every breathtakingly glorious shot, even the smallest detail in the production design — it all feels integral, it all adds up, it all means something. This is the kind of movie where your bathroom breaks should happen just before the film starts and just after it’s over, because if you miss even three minutes, you’re missing a lot.

Daniel Kaluuya has an incredible knack for playing characters who convey so much in the lowest of keys and can then explode in an instant, and he’s perfectly cast here as OJ Haywood (yes, he’s called OJ, and it does raise eyebrows when folks first meet him), who runs the only Black-owned horse ranch in Hollywood, a generational enterprise dating all the way back to the origin of motion pictures. OJ is a 21st century cowboy who’s more comfortable around his beloved horses than other people, but he’s determined to keep the ranch running even as it faces financial difficulties.

Not that he’s getting much help from his funny, flighty, enormously likable but not particularly motivated younger sister Emerald (Keke Palmer in one of her best performances), who has a penchant for showing up late for film or TV shoots and would rather get her drink on and play some old vinyl records than help out on the ranch.

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Daniel Kaluuya plays the proprietor of a Hollywood horse ranch.

Universal Pictures

When OJ spots a mysterious object in the clouds above the ranch — something that appears to be alien in nature and capable of great destruction — Em says this can be their “Oprah moment.” They’ll capture whatever this thing is on video as definitive proof of life beyond Earth, sell it for zillions of dollars and become rich and famous.

Suffice to say whatever that is in the clouds has other ideas.

With the esteemed cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (a Christopher Nolan regular who shot “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk” and “Tenet”) providing some of the most spectacular location visuals of the year, “Nope” alternates between exquisitely crafted set pieces with little dialogue and loads of genuine scares, and some fantastic interior scenes crackling with great lines.

Steven Yeun gives a slyly effective performance as one Ricky “Jupe” Park, a former child star who now runs a California Gold Rush theme park just down the road from the Heywood Ranch. Ricky’s experiences as a child actor on a wacky 1990s sitcom, including a moment that was immortalized on a (fictional) “Saturday Night Live” skit, make for some of the most memorably twisted scenes in recent memory. Brandon Perea has a Dave Franco vibe as Angel, who works at a big-box electronics store, helps OJ and Emerald install an elaborate camera system on the ranch and just sort of becomes their ally without really being invited. He is key comic relief.

Then there’s the great character actor Michael Wincott (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” “The Crow,” “Strange Days’), whose angular features and gravelly voice have been put to great use in many a villainous role, turning in a bizarrely endearing performance as one Antlers Horst, a renowned lensmen who agrees to join the ad hoc filmmaking squad because why the hell not, he might achieve the crowning moment of his career with one immortal “Magic Hour” shot.

We don’t want to say much more here, other than to commend Peele for creating an exhilarating piece of cinema filled with memorable characters. (Even the smaller roles are played to perfection by the likes of Keith David as OJ’s and Emerald’s father; the one and only Donna Mills as a Hollywood diva, and Barbie Ferreira from “Euphoria,” who plays Angel’s co-worker and spins gold out of maybe six lines.) Whether Peele is invoking Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” or using those ridiculous inflatable tube men figures in a most creative way, we are in pop culture heaven. With “Get Out” and “Us” and now “Nope,” Peele is firmly established as one of the most exciting and innovative filmmakers of his generation. His movies are now officially “events,” a la the early works of Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan and Quentin Tarantino. We can’t wait to see what he does next.

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