“No” shows how a core of curiosity can turn into a very original work of art. The film stems from director Jordan Peele’s interest in learning the identity of the black rider atop the horse in Eadweard Muybridge’s ‘The Horse in Motion’, widely considered the first ‘movie’ when it was first shown in 1878. .
Otis Haywood Sr. (a briefly seen but masterful Keith David), the owner and myth-maker behind an outfit called Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, claims the rider was his great-grandfather. In the present, Otis’ son, OJ (Daniel Kaluuya), runs the business, offering the services of his couriers for TV commercials and other gigs. As OJ beams with reluctance, his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) adds a bit of sauce to the affair, hustling all over the place – she always arrives late, scattered and mumbling, but also elegant and brilliant.
Back at the ranch, OJ scans the night sky, haunted by the idea that the Haywoods are suffering from a bad miracle. He thinks a predatory flying saucer is hiding behind a cloud that never moves – it’s hard when Martians can even control the weather. While walking through the stables one dark night, OJ is confronted with possible alien life, so he says the title of the movie and comes out of the dodge.
His neighbor in Agua Dulce is Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun), a former child star who is somewhat reminiscent of Quiz Kid Donnie Smith in “Magnolia.” Jupe runs a former Western amusement park and wants to buy the land from the Haywood family. He launches a “Star Lasso Experience” where he uses the lure of an alien craft sighting to lure a few more visitors to his dusty fantasy land. For fun, Peele throws in scenes of a murderous chimpanzee rampage that changed the course of young Jupe’s life. The poor guy is forced to explain his horrific childhood trauma via an SNL skit starring Chris Kattan as the angry monkey.
Convinced they can get footage of UFOs flying over their land, OJ and Emerald hire Angel (Brandon Perea), a Fry’s Electronics burnout with an interest in elaborate technological setups and alien invasions. He’s heartbroken by a girlfriend who left him after he landed “a pilot on the CW,” but he’s eager to help OJ point the high-definition security cameras skyward. He’s an expert, after all: “’Ancient Aliens’ on the History Channel, watch that shit!!
With “Nope”, Peele finds a rich connection between the western and sci-fi genres. It combines the two as “No Country for Old Men” mixes western and film noir and “The Hateful Eight” mixes western and Quentin Tarantino’s huge ego.
Despite Angel’s good work, OJ finds that the proximity of an alien ship disables all electronics. So, to get the hard proof of the aliens they need to appear in “Oprah,” the Haywoods hire Holst (Michael Wincott), a hooked but genius cinematographer. At first, Emerald introduces him to a reality TV gig and Holst gives an instant no, but OJ clarifies that it’s actually a “documentary” to entice the shooter to step outside to see the scenery. Holst uses a hand-cranked camera that requires no electricity to ensure it won’t fail even when an alien craft looms directly overhead.
Peele gets the most out of his cast, especially Kaluuya’s OJ and Palmer’s Emerald, who share a prickly, funny, and utterly believable bond. As the alien plot spins through our minds, Peele weaves the themes of analog versus digital, horse versus motorcycle, and history versus future. “Nope” is also a film about cinema, and an excellent one. At the most crucial moment, Holst resists the magic hour, despite all the clues he needs to save his life. Such is the power of capturing images.