The Strawberry Criterion: NOPE

Though claims of its existence are still subject to debate, there remains a small but vocal community of diehard genre fans that continues to assert, despite all evidence to the contrary, that Jordan Peele once produced and hosted a reboot of The Twilight Zone.

Track these ragtag conspiracy theorists to their dim basement apartments, or their unwatched YouTube channels, and they will swear on their rarest FunkO Pop that Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone ran for two seasons (20 episodes!) on a platform called CBS All Access, an obscure corporate streaming service whose realness invites scrutiny in its own right. If you second-guess them, they will cite the unmistakable influence of Rod Serling’s original series on Peele’s previous two features, how “The Trade-Ins,” from 1962, invented the Coagula Procedure more than 50 years before Get Out‘s Coagula Procedure, how “Mirror Image,” from 1960, presents a white midcentury model of the plot of US. They will show you IMDB pages, paper and digital reviews, and even zany promotional swag, but nothing an entry-level graphic designer or deep fake artist couldn’t forge. With a resigned sigh regarding the state of mental health in this country, you will leave these pitiable souls to their delusions, their stuffed animals and graphic tees. You will head to see Peele’s new film, confident that one of our most acclaimed writer-directors is far too talented, popular, and culturally significant to have produced a completely unwatched reboot of The Twilight Zone. Then you will sit through NOPE, and you will start to want to believe.

For skeptics, NOPE presents sufficient evidence that Jordan Peele, fresh off an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, had more than enough half-baked ideas to produce a multi-season remake of The Twilight Zone. The film, a contemporary monster movie masquerading as a throwback alien invasion movie, plays like a showcase for the leftover episode premises from Peele’s little-seen reboot, its Frankenstein of stitched-together high concepts never quite adding up to a satisfying, coherent whole. The main plot concerns a family of African-American horse handlers, the Haywoods, whose distant ancestor was purportedly the black jockey who appeared in Eadweard Muybridge’s The Horse in Motion, the two-second clip commonly cited as the first motion picture. Like their last name (only a few letters away from Hollywood), the Haywoods have for generations lived and worked at a close remove from the entertainment industry, competently operating on the periphery but, due first to their race and more recently to the diminished popularity of westerns, never invited in. From their LA county ranch, they have helped to keep the movie machine running without earning much more than horse feed money and an acknowledgement when the credits roll, their company’s name appearing on screen well after the last stragglers have left the theater.

The second, more engaging storyline concerns a traumatized former child actor, Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), who starred in a hit 90s sitcom that was canceled after an enraged chimpanzee snapped on set, injuring and killing several members of the cast. Jupe was spared, for reasons that will be vaguely gestured at by the end of the film. Three decades later, Jupe owns and runs a Wild West-themed amusement park, Jupiter’s Claim, whose rides and attractions buzz and whir just across the valley from the Haywoods’ ranch. After the patriarch of the Haywood family dies in a mysterious accident (a coin falls out of the sky, tears like a sniper’s bullet through his head), his son and daughter, OJ and Emerald, played by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, start selling horses to Jupe to keep the ranch afloat. These are beloved horses for OJ, and as he promises his disbelieving sister, they are going to find the money to buy the animals back.

The psychic and physical wounds that bond these characters, all minorities harmed or disregarded by the Hollywood system, all members of communities traditionally left out of the mainstream American narrative, offer fertile ground for Peele’s imagination, if not for his storytelling and execution. Their interwoven dramas, while not occurring in precisely the same world as US or Get Out, are undeniably at home in Peele’s universe of racially charged sci-fi horror, and NOPE‘s strongest moments (see: the chimp attack, or Jupe’s museum documenting it) once again present the outline of an ascendent auteur, a filmmaker in the high-minded low culture tradition of Carpenter and Craven. John Carpenter’s third feature film was Halloween, however; Wes Craven’s was The Hills Have Eyes. These were seismic leaps forward not just for these directors but for their genre. NOPE isn’t a full step backwards, but it is more stasis than progress for Peele; if he had directed it under a pseudonym, critics and audiences might have characterized it as a fine Jordan Peele knockoff. Perhaps this is the downside of debuting with a film as assured, celebrated, and profitable as GET OUT–the writer-director lapses into self-commodification before the self can fully form.

Commodification of the self, and the exploitation of the self’s image, move to the foreground of NOPE with the arrival of Jean Jacket, the UFO-shaped flying monster that stalks the perimeter of the Haywoods’ farm. (The origins of the creature’s demented, incredible name will not be explained in these pages.) Jupe, in a bid to turn the transparently dangerous alien into an attraction for his business, has been feeding Jean Jacket the horses that he has been purchasing from the Haywoods, and here the film should turn into a mutually destructive competition between the amusement park and the horse farm, a desperate rat race to capture and monetize Jean Jacket by any means necessary. And NOPE does become that, partly. But along the way we have several almost amusing detours with an UAP-obsessed tech repairman, a Werner Herzog-esque German commercial director, and a nameless, faceless paparazzi reporter from TMZ who never removes their motorcycle helmet. These asides are either too brief to add anything substantial to the proceedings, or so long that they detract from the unity of tone and momentum. They are reminders of Peele’s background in sketch comedy and (allegedly) Twilight Zone reboots, coming across as ideas that might sustain an audience’s attention for five to 22 minutes but distract from the main action and characters of a 135-minute feature.

These would be forgivable shortcomings if the odd couple sibling protagonists, OJ and Emerald, didn’t also seem to occupy altogether separate movies. As the strong, mostly silent OJ, a man who prefers the company of horses to people, Kaluuya is admirably understated until outward emotion is called for–that’s when the sarcastic humor or pathos rings artificial. The character of Emerald is, how to put it, so obnoxious and unfunny that her inclusion feels like an editing oversight, and Keke Palmer’s performance most recalls a pity invite at a middle school sleepover; her anxious, beseeching acting makes ignoring her hard and admiring her impossible. None of these characters measure up, in presence or psychological nuance, to those in Peele’s two earlier features, which is a shame considering the names and capabilities involved. And as NOPE builds to the Haywoods’ final encounter with Jean Jacket, an irony emerges in Peele’s film about how Hollywood mistreats its talent, or in this case, merely underserves it.

Hidden, if you squint, among these underwhelming side characters and the inconsistent writing is a profound, inventive film about humanity’s relationship with animals, as well as the communities that powerful nations and industries have then and now perceived as animals, which is to say as less than human, as an unfeeling resource to be exploited until it is exhausted and can be disposed of without a second thought. NOPE should have more effectively interrogated the empathic solidarity, the inter-species kinship, that the Haywoods and Jupe have for Jean Jacket. (This unspoken solidarity is why the chimpanzee spared Jupe, after all; that a monkey can feel what people cannot may be Peele’s truest stroke of genius here.) But Jupe is sidelined for too long, and then summarily killed. We are left again in the middle ground that defines NOPE, a purgatory that does offer–but never synthesizes–dynamic allegory and epic spectacle.

Peele’s final action set piece is presented as redemptive, cathartic, as if he recalled this was a movie about children avenging their father’s death, but the logistics again muddle the takeaway. Jean Jacket, perhaps as a defense mechanism, begins to change form, its UFO shape blossoming into a cross between an orchid and billowing bedroom curtain. The creature dominates the sky, the most stunning image in a film with more than a handful of them. The Haywoods lure Jean Jacket into a vulnerable position, capturing its image before they kill it. “That’s why you don’t fuck with the Haywoods!” Emerald screams at the sky. OJ sits tall astride a horse, claiming his family’s overdue place in film history. More than a century after The Horse in Motion, the Haywoods have learned how to survive in the machine; Peele, maybe writing from experience, rightly suggests that this isn’t an accomplishment to celebrate.

The steps taken towards Peele’s conclusions in NOPE are shaky, but that makes them no less affecting or correct. Out there, in America as in Hollywood, it’s still a fight to the death at the bottom. Peele, to his credit and his detriment, killed none of his darlings in the making of NOPE, jamming the container of his third film so full of ideas and characters that it overflowed. Jordan Peele should be commended for this ambition, though its shortfalls suggest he now risks finding himself in a truly terrifying kind of horror movie: the tale of a wildly talented director whose art, arguments, and career failed to reach their full potential because an entire industry was scared to tell him no.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 3 Strawberries out of 5