The adrenaline rush of not knowing what’s coming next — rarely found in movie theaters anymore, unless it’s a dumb Marvel Cinematic Universe cameo — invades Jordan Peele’s “Nope” like a ruthless alien civilization.
Running time: 135 minutes. Rated R (language throughout and some violence and bloody images). In theaters.
Suspense and scary uncertainty are also what make this singular director’s career so addictive to follow. Fans salivate when they see the words “Untitled Jordan Peele Project” on a calendar at this point, far more than they do for “Avatar 2.” Every Peele picture is a mystery we crave solving.
Of course, nothing will ever completely re-create the magic of “Get Out,” the 2017 horror hit nobody saw coming, which thrust Peele and star Daniel Kaluuya into the stratosphere and netted a Best Picture Oscar nomination.
But pass-the-popcorn “Nope,” which reunites the pair, is entertaining, smart, artful summer fare with its heart planted firmly in the 1980s heyday of blockbuster films. Just when you think, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore,” Kaluuya rides in on a horse.
I’ll be careful not to reveal more secrets than I have to, but it’s OK to say that Kaluuya’s character OJ and his extrovert sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) are California animal trainers for film sets.
Their family-owned ranch is called Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, and lately, business has been in a slump since their more experienced dad died mysteriously — he fell off his steed, and a quarter was found lodged in his brain.
Soon after the tragedy, the horses begin having mysterious temper tantrums and regularly run off into the mountains. OJ, quiet and skeptical, starts witnessing strange phenomena in the sky.
With the help of an electronics store employee named Angel (Brandon Perea), the siblings attempt to film what they believe to be a UFO.
Where Peele treks from there isn’t to a land of shocking twists, per se, but a clever take on alien lore that we’ve never seen before — bolstered by striking imagery not usually associated with little green men.
That’s especially true of the character Jupe. The very funny Steven Yeun plays the owner of a novelty ranch — a roadside attraction with a cartoony Old West town. We learn that this is his second act in life after starring in a popular TV comedy called “Gordy’s World,” about a little kid who befriends a chimp.
The film’s most visceral scene — brilliant in what it decides to show and not to show — relates to Jupe’s traumatic past, and adds a troubling layer of dread to the broader plot.
When it comes to performances, Peele borrows the philosophy of Thai food: sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Palmer is gregarious and hilarious; Kaluuya is reserved and downcast a la “Get Out” and nothing like his forceful Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah”; Perea is a sassy puppy dog; and Michael Wincott, as a Hollywood filmmaker named Antlers, is jaded and has seen it all . . . almost.
“Nope” is a horror movie, I suppose, but there is more awe at play here than abject terror. And diverse genres are fused together rather than 100% fear-mongering. Peele melds Westerns, comedy, science fiction, action-adventure and spookiness into one cohesive, seemingly simple film with a lot of laughs. Michael Abels’ score, for instance, sounds like an unsettling and kinda funny blend of Hitchcock movies and the theme from “Gunsmoke.”
The movie is a bit long, and the culmination overstays its welcome. That is the only section of the movie where the viewer is a step ahead — and therefore it doesn’t sizzle like what came before.
Yet the visual splendor of the sequence also proves the director has a flair for the epic we didn’t know about before. And that makes me all the more excited for the next “Untitled Jordan Peele Project.”