Alien movies roughly fall into two categories. There is the hostile invasion category, best typified by H.G. Wells’ “War of the World.” Then there is the peaceful, even cuddly category (“E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), who only want to learn from us and allow us the benefits of their advanced culture.
In the innocuous-sounding “Nope,” comedian-turned-horror film director Jordan Peele has opted for the first version. He once again proves he has a Stephen King-like ability to know how to play on the audience’s nerves.
Without spoilers, he gives the audience glimpses of the outer space threat rather than a full-on view. This is by far the creepiest part of the movie, but when the pay-off comes and we finally see what is piloting the flying saucer (Peele and his special effects team turn this conventional saucer object into a humming and hungry spacecraft), it doesn’t deliver the goods.
Not all of this is Peele’s fault. After decades of alien and horror movies, audiences have become jaded about the scariness of a being from a different world whose sole purpose isn’t just to colonize us but to also eat us. To my mind, the scariest extraterrestrial was Ridley Scott’s in “Alien” (1979). What was fearful about it wasn’t its giant size and metallic coating or even its acidic blood. It was its dripping wetness and its rocketing set of extra fangs.
The runner-up was the “Predator” from the series of the same name. Like Scott’s creature, the alien’s sole purpose was to kill us. Pig-snouted, fanged, and inexplicably enraged, the Predator was so threatening that it made mincemeat of Arnold Schwarzenegger, then in his physical prime.
Otherwise, like the possessed in movies trying to outdo “The Exorcist,” aliens in horror movies have become almost quaint. There were the pod ones, unwieldy walking on spider-type legs from Well’s “War of the Worlds” that not even Spielberg could wring terror out of. Worse was the alien from M. Night Shyamalan’s laughable “Signs,” vomit-colored and failing to recapture the shock value of even the rubber-suited “Creature From The Black Lagoon” it was clearly based on.
It must be said that Peele is a master of creating an atmosphere of unease and mounting terror with minimal effects. What stays with the viewer isn’t just the tornadoes and dust devils and sucking wind (the budget was well-spent on these effects) showing just how vulnerable we are to weather patterns, but also what is dripping outside the windows of the ranch and the sounds of what is hovering hungrily above it.
There is also something disconcerting about an alien movie not occurring aboard a spaceship, another planet, or a city. By placing the setting on a working horse ranch, Peele has reduced the chances of Daniel Kaluuya and his feisty sister (Keke Palmer) to a primitive level. There are no nuclear-armed jets to try and protect those on the ground. “Nope” is in essence “Tombstone” meets “The War of the Worlds.” It is what the film “Cowboys and Aliens” should have been.
Peele, who has said he entered the horror field because of how the genre treated African-Americans — the script always ensuring that the black character was killed first — doesn’t have his actors do the noble, racially-oppressed character act. The pace of the film doesn’t allow for that.
He effectively uses the characters to ratchet up the terror by showing how even the tough-minded and rugged and feisty brother and sister can be scared. And if they can be almost catatonically terrified then what hovers above them must be very scary indeed.
Like “The Batman” and “Top Gun,” “Nope” has a majestic quality that belongs on a big screen. The budget is well-spent and the special effects, particularly with regard to the wind the flying saucer kicks up, are the most impressive thus far to be recorded on film.
In this film, Peele has been compared to Spielberg (who managed to make aliens boring in the infamous “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) but it would be more appropriate to call him an Alfred Hitchcock who deals in horror rather than reality-based suspense.
It is a shame that for all its impressive build-up, “Nope” can’t deliver on what it has been preparing the audience for.
Ron Capshaw is a writer based in Florida.