Nick Raven mug

Nick Raven

Getting out of Jordan Peele’s new science-fiction horror film Nope, my friend and I did something we typically don’t do on the ride out: We talked about it.

Perhaps it’s our diet of high-budget action films that provide answers to every last question before their conclusion, but there’s something special about how Peele approaches his films that evokes fond memories of M. Night Shyamalan’s early work. I remember the wonder of The Sixth Sense or even Signs where you came for the mystery and left the theater with more questions than you came in with. Those movies hung on your brain, but they also hung on a plot twist mechanic that became flimsier and more apparent with each new film, something he became derided for.

But Nope hits different. It’s deathly serious, gory, strange but also darkly humorous. Producer/writer/director Peele was half of the Comedy Central TV duo Key & Peele alongside longtime Mad TV collaborator and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, where their skits were similarly surreal, dark and incredibly funny. When the show ended, Peele began building his own line of horror features, starting with 2017’s Get Out, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, and 2019’s Us, an incredibly interesting take on the zombie film. If you’re familiar with those films, Nope’s obsession with distant wide-angle shots, smash cuts to title cards, and suspenseful long shots will strangely feel like home.

The story, which I won’t spoil, involves unexplained phenomena over a Hollywood horse farm run by an unemotive Otis “OJ” Jr (Daniel Kaluuya) and his vibrant sister Em (Keke Palmer) after their father (Keith David) is killed in a freak accident. Entwined with this is a story about a former child actor (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) who owns a neighboring ranch upon which he’s built a theme park.

Even after the film has explained its rules and led you to its credit roll, you’re left wondering how X connects with Z. It doesn’t feel like being carroted along with a mystery that ultimately won’t be resolved or make much sense even if it is. Peele’s films regularly ask the viewer to take inventory of what they saw to make sense of what they see.

A film that’s stuck with me in the decade since it released in a similar way is Ridley Scott’s visually gorgeous Prometheus, the Alien prequel that somehow confused people about whether or not it was an Alien prequel. The script, co-written by “puzzle box” advocate and Lost writer Damon Lindelof, gleefully asks questions it has no intention of answering. It’s cryptic in service of its characters and world-building, rather than being pretentious or annoying. If you can ignore the stupid things that its characters do and let its spell wash over you, Prometheus begs you to hop on Google afterward to figure out what its various loose ends were really meant to connect to.

As someone who appreciates the wonders of video game mechanics, it’s easy to see how modern audiences are dazzled by the new graphics that movies provide while rarely letting the imagination stray too far from the golden path. Spectacle, once only a feature of the most expensive studio tentpoles, is cheap; it’s mystery that’s in short supply. Nope has mysteries at its core — and if you hop on the ride, it won’t insult your intelligence.

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