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Jordan Peele's 'Nope' blends blockbuster thrills with grand ideas

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. After tapping into the horrors lurking beneath the surface of American life in "Get Out" and "Us," writer and director Jordan Peele ventures into alien sci-fi territory with his new thriller titled "Nope." The movie, which opens in theaters this week, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer as siblings who witness what may be an extraterrestrial visitor to the California desert. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The title of Jordan Peele's smart and subversive new thriller, "Nope," is muttered a lot by the characters on screen usually in frightened response to the very big, very bad thing they see flying overhead. This is Peele's version of a UFO thriller, his winking homage to classic alien-invader stories like "War Of The Worlds" and "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind." But as you'd expect from the writer-director of "Get Out" and "Us," which used the horror genre to tell stories about racism and class oppression. "Nope" also has something topical on its mind, and figuring out what that something is is part of the fun. For now, let's just say it has something to do with movies themselves.

The story takes place in the wide-open desert spaces of Agua Dulce, which lies about 50 miles north of Los Angeles and is a popular Hollywood filming location. The two protagonists are a sibling duo who own a ranch and also work as horse wranglers on movie and TV sets. Daniel Kaluuya plays the stoic, taciturn brother, Otis Haywood Jr., who goes by O.J. in one of the script's more deadpan asides. By contrast, his sister Em, played by a terrific Keke Palmer, is full of warmth and energy. In this scene, she and her brother are wrangling a horse on a set, and Em explains the history of their family business.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOPE")

KEKE PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) Did you know that the very first assembly of photographs to create a motion picture was a two-second clip of a Black man on a horse? And that man is my great-great-grandfather.

DANIEL KALUUYA: (As O.J. Haywood) Great.

PALMER: (As Emerald Haywood) There's another great-grandfather. But that's why back at the Haywood Ranch, as the only Black-owned horse trainers in Hollywood, we like to say since the moment pictures could move, we had skin in the game.

CHANG: Another major character here is Jupe Park, played by Steven Yeun, who runs a kitschy old-West-themed amusement park in Agua Dulce near the Haywoods' ranch. Jupe was once a child actor on a mid-'90s family sitcom built around a chimpanzee until the show was canceled after a gruesome on-set tragedy. Between that and the horse wrangling, Peele is clearly interrogating Hollywood's long history of animal-related accidents and abuses. What any of this has to do with a possible alien invasion might seem mystifying at first, but Peele brings the connection gradually into focus.

Before long, that flying saucer is peeking out from behind the clouds and zipping over the desert landscape, triggering power outages and raining down all kinds of misery. But Peele smartly keeps us from getting a really good look at it early on. He's learned the crucial lesson of Steven Spielberg's "Jaws," namely that the less we see of the monster early on, the scarier and more effective the buildup will be. And like "Jaws," "Nope" becomes a double-edged chase thriller in which the saucer soaring overhead is both hunting and being hunted by the people scurrying on the ground below. But the movie also plays like a Western with its horses and ranches and, finally, its story of a ragtag crew coming together to mount one last stand against a monstrous threat.

The other Spielberg classic that Peele leans on heavily here is "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind." Not unlike Richard Dreyfuss' character in that movie, O.J. and Em, along with two unlikely allies well-played by Brandon Perea and Michael Wincott, become obsessed with their otherworldly visitors. But they don't just want to find out the truth. They're hell-bent on capturing visual evidence that what they're seeing is real. It's here that "Nope" becomes a cautionary tale of sorts in a way that dovetails with Peele's larger critique of Hollywood. He's questioning our sometimes mindless attraction to spectacle, whether we chanced upon it in real life or in a big-budget summer movie like this one.

Not everything in "Nope" works. After a beautifully controlled build-up and a genuinely thrilling mid-section, the movie's third act sputters a bit as Peele tries to tie all his grand ideas together. But it's a thrill to see a big-budget summer movie that actually has ideas. And Peele's confidence as a filmmaker seems to grow with every movie. One scene in which O.J. rides a horse with the you-know-what nipping at his heels brings to mind nothing so much as the famous Cary-Grant-versus-crop-duster sequence in Hitchcock's "North By Northwest." In "Get Out" and "Us," Peele plunged us into shadowy funhouses of horror. In "Nope," he has the skill to let terror take hold in broad daylight. And no less than his petrified characters, you might find it awfully hard to look away.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE BARRIE'S "BETTER CALL SAUL MAIN TITLE THEME")

BIANCULLI: "Better Call Saul," the AMC prequel to "Breaking Bad," has only four episodes left before winding up the story of how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman, a sleazy, fast-talking lawyer representing slip-and-fall patients and drug lords. On Monday's show, we talk with Bob Odenkirk, the star of "Better Call Saul," and the show's co-creator and showrunner, Peter Gould - hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE PORTER'S "ALPINE SHEPHERD BOY")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Tina Kalakay. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE PORTER'S "ALPINE SHEPHERD BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.