In “No,” writer/director Jordan Peele presents us with a big, shiny summer blockbuster — a riff of cowboys and aliens built from the DNA of sci-fi shows of yore — then proceeds to the vivisection of the very notion of a summer blockbuster before our eyes. He wants to ask us about the nature of the creation of images, and he begins at the beginning of the history of cinema, with the photographer Eadweard Muybridge. In 1878, Muybridge devised the earliest known example of “moving pictures”: a two-second clip titled “The Horse in Motion”, consisting of sequential photographs of a jockey riding a racehorse.
That the jockey on the horse – the first person presented in the films – is black and unknown, is the starting point for Peele’s exploration of sight and seen in “No”, which questions the power of images, which can create them, and who gets the credit. These are complex questions, but Peele has wrapped them up in an incredibly original and entertaining sci-fi film that’s both unlike and similar to anything you’ve ever seen before.
Daniel Kaluuya stars as OJ Haywood, a taciturn horse trainer mourning the loss of his father (Keith David) in a freak accident, while continuing to run the family business, Haywood Hollywood Horses, with his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer), providing animals for movie sets. As told in an on-set safety talk hosted by Emerald, the siblings are descended from the rider who first appeared on horseback in Muybridge’s clip, and through OJ and Emerald, Peele reckon with the history of the black film erased and seeks to re-inscribe it. .
However, at their desert ranch in Agua Dulce, strange things are afoot. The clouds are threatening, the winds threatening, roaring cries emanate from the sky and frighten the horses. They enlist Angel (Brandon Perea), a surly young employee of Fry’s local electronics, to install security cameras, and he takes a direct interest in potential extraterrestrial phenomena there, reviewing the footage and returning to be the witness himself.
The strange happenings in the desert extend to their neighbors in a western theme park called Jupiter’s Claim. Owner Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) has had to deal with his own complicated legacy in the entertainment industry as a former child actor and survivor of a horrific chimpanzee attack on the set of a family sitcom. Notoriety followed him throughout his life, even if the evidence of the event is all the more lucrative as the imagery is rare, on which he capitalizes.
Capital, and the power that comes with it, drives the battle unfolding in this valley, as OJ, Emerald, Angel, and the legendary cinematographer they enlist, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), are fighting to create valuable evidence of what is happening there.
“Nope” is Jordan Peele’s “Jaws,” a monster movie made from the coast of Steven Spielberg’s pioneering ’70s blockbuster. It also bears the imprint of Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and is rich in references to cult 80s and 90s sci-fi. Film buff Peele can’t help but reference his favorites, and he This is a film about filmmaking, specifically the anonymous technicians and laborers who keep the film machine going, but don’t get the glory. Peele assembles and disassembles the pieces of the blockbuster before us, showing us how it works, asking us to think about the many different ways we engage with motion pictures, photographs, technology and spectacle, from carnival to security camera images, to a virtual reality headset.
Peele invites us to question the power of who controls the images while simultaneously demonstrating masterful control over the flow of information and images in “No”, restraining the horror, slicing it up like only a master of the suspense can, layering mood, tone and atmosphere, pushing and pulling the tempo of the edit and what we see and don’t see to create tension.
Deeply mysterious and sometimes inscrutable, “Nope” is also funny, ironic and even dark, thanks to the incredible actors who walk the tightrope of Peele. Kaluuya is calm and intense, Palmer explosive and hilarious, a perfect pair of foils. Yeun conveys oceans of mystery under a diplomatic attitude; Is Jupe a sociopath or does he constantly dissociate himself from his own trauma? Perea delivers a breakout performance with his unique, lived-in take on Angel, and gravel-voiced Wilcott, who memorably appeared in “Alien: Resurrection,” is the icing on the cake.
“Nope” is another genre-disrupting masterpiece from Jordan Peele, whose intellectual, curious, and playful perspective has become vital and necessary for the horror and sci-fi genre to evolve. There’s so much more to explore in the depths of “No”, but for now, let’s just say “yup”.
★★★1/2 (out of 4)
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout and some violent/gory images)
Operating time: 2:10
How to watch: In theaters Friday