A spectacular miss can still be a hell of a swing. Nope is stuffed full of tantalising visual ideas. In fact, it is a bit of a technical showpiece, a filmmaking tour de force. Even the editing, pronounced though it is, has style and swagger. It is a confident picture, one which wears its biggest ideas (or idea) on its sleeves, and fills the inside of its jacket with all kind of tantalising symbols, motifs and themes. It is a spectacular surface, a stylised one that is precision tooled to create engagement. It teases you along; it has striking visual enigmas. Ultimately, like the inflatable tube men that it visually returns to, Nope has enough energy to keep it inflated, to keep it going, through the runtime but, in the end, falls rather flat.
A lot of Nope is very good. Excellent, even. Even the plot outline is strong: a family linked to cinema’s past find themselves in a cinematic situation and are used to reflect our desire to film, to categorise or prove. It is very much ‘pics or it didn’t happen’ the movie, with a line of critique that doesn’t go far beyond this. The plot, rather than the subtext, does remain strong. A mysterious presence is terrorising an area and learning the mechanics of it and how to deal with it is satisfying. Though the film is overly reliant on teasing and revealing, revelling in a slowness linked to intrigue that comes at the expense of character. It is very easy to get distracted by how good the performances are and not realise there is little underneath. Daniel Kaluuya gives a distinct performance to his earlier outings with director Peele, and it is excellent. The real standout, though, is Keke Palmer. A performance bristling with vitality and energy that brings so much to the screen.
The performances are certainly a plus, the characters underneath just do not add much and are victims of wider potential. Hints at the history of cinema and of legacy are left underexplored. At all points, there are gaps the viewer can fill (and many viewers will) but the film doesn’t incentivise not require this. Tantalising edges are a hell of thing in more ambiguous work, but the meat of Nope is so clear, goes to such a definite direction. It ties itself off cleanly and satisfyingly, in a way that is separated from the wider themes or ideas the film could be about. They are always there in the background but are foregrounded at the start. So tantalising so, points about cinematic exploitation and the legacy of what is done just so it can be captured. This segues into a finale that speaks the language of that cinema, a grand pastiche that uses the language of homage to be something strikingly different (bold, blockbuster filmmaking) but that is made less interesting by the promise of before. It takes too much on, including side stories and gestures that are either not enough or are hyperbolised to the point of falling flat. A Herzogian style director chasing the ecstatic truths at the heart of nature’s brutality, aching to get them with his camera? That works. A dated, and illogically deployed, rushed satirical beat that includes references to TMZ and doubles down way too far on ‘pics or it didn’t happen’? The film just should be above that. In pushing to its destination, it also sends out mixed messages. The film is almost in dialogue with our toxic obsession and reliance with plastic, but the narrative drive turns this (oddly) into a plus point.
But, even when it fails, it fails with style. The visual design may work against the themes, indulging a spectacle as opposed to taking a step back for substance, but it does deliver spectacle. The kind of spectacle is one more akin to the blockbusters of old, a return that is in line with some of the storytelling, but sits jarringly against some of the other gestures. This all being said, the visual ideas on display are fantastic. There are singular images and short sequences that are utterly stunning, they are frequent also. In fact, for many viewers, their existence will be enough. You can tie them together to make a powerful and more image rich film, in which interplay is clearer. But, the film itself does not do this, its narrative propulsion doesn’t align with its imagist potential. It is a film about a want for spectacle, and part of this theme is how the film does conform to this.
But, awareness doesn’t always mean success. The focus on the sublime and the spectacular pushes all else to the side. This is a point. This is an idea. But the things pushed to the side are more interesting ideas and the ultimate thesis, the one the narrative commits to, is not overly original or interesting. The visual treatment of it is bold and memorable, the actual substance is very known. This makes it almost a hell of a blockbuster that just works as a stunning blockbuster, but one that is aware of its status in the genre. But, the film feels beholden to other expectations, one that it doesn’t uphold. Films exist that do both, that give the thrills and that work cerebrally, challengingly even. Nope could have been one of those things, the soundtrack, performances and visuals are in line with this. The script, though, is not there. Hidden histories throughout Hollywood, unknown heroes, the dichotomy between analogue and digital (but how both sides of this divide can be exploitative), Nope takes all of these ideas on. You can pull these ideas out of it. But, it doesn’t take them to conclusions beyond pointing them out, which is a shame. In the end, they are distractions, things to be disappointed by. But, there’s always the spectacle to fall back on, and the film does pull that off, with stunning pics that prove it happened.