Jordan Peele’s Nope has no shortage of terrifying visuals. There are bolting horses, air-filled skydancers swaying uncontrollably and an amusement park that brings to mind the freak-show carnivals of yore. But perhaps nothing can beat the moment when a pet chimpanzee, having run amok during a television show and attacked the human participants, turns towards the camera and looks right at us.

Both animals and the human addiction to spectacle feature prominently in Peele’s ambitious third movie. When an unidentified flying object hovers menacingly over the ranch owned by a pair of siblings, their first instinct is to capture the event on film.

The family-owned horse wrangling business has fallen on hard times, forcing OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) to sell their animals to theme park owner Ricky (Steven Yeun). Footage of the UFO could help OJ and Emerald buy back the horses, but the sombrero-shaped spacecraft’s appetite for carnage is limitless.

In a film that is forever poised between literalness and allegory, we are invited to reach our own conclusions about what the UFO actually represents. Although Peele’s scripting isn’t always smooth enough to be entirely satisfying, Nope has enough going on to mark it out as one of the most unusual sci-fi horror films in recent times.

Nope (2022).

The dense semiotics of Nope reach all the way back to the origins of cinema. OJ and Emerald claim to have descended from a forgotten pioneer of Hollywood – the Black jockey featured in Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. This series of photographs from the 1880s of a horse in various stages of motion laid the foundation for cinema and, later, animation.

The shadow of an animated classic hangs over the moments when the spaceship swallows humans whole but rejects inedible metal and plastic objects. These scenes bring to mind Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, about a young girl trapped in an enchanted bathhouse at an abandoned amusement park. One of the guests at the bathhouse is a river spirit that belches out all the detritus with which humans have polluted it, from trash to bicycles.

Nope features a host of other ideas too, including the tabloidisation of tragedy and the untrammelled exploitation of natural resources. Some of these ideas are articulated with the clarity that marked Peele’s brilliant debut feature Get Out (2017). Others rush through like in his second film Us (2019).

Nope is always alert to the anxieties of the Anthropocene, in which human meddling with the environment has led to pandemics and climate change. At the emotional heart of a high-minded narrative is a moving brother-sister relationship, magnificently portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer.

The 130-minute Nope burns slowly, its double-weave of creepiness and warmth aided by Johnnie Burn’s suitably sinister sound design. The relationship between OJ and Emerald – he taciturn and thoughtful, she expressive and instinctive – unfolds at leisure, allowing Kaluuya and Palmer to fully inhabit their characters.

OJ and Emerald get technical assistance from electronics whiz Angel (played by a superb Brandon Perea). They are later joined by veteran cinematographer Antlers (Michael Wincott). In his excitement to be the one who will commit the UFO’s savagery to film, Antlers behaves exactly as Carl Denham from the King Kong movies – a slave to the exploitative image.

The film’s actual cinematographer is one of the stars of the show. Hoyte von Hoytema matches Peele’s bold vision in every scene. Von Hoytema’s diamond-sharp images, which have been filmed with 65mm film stock on IMAX cameras, mesh seamlessly with the special effects.

The extended climax is a visual tour de force. The battle between a malevolent force in the sky and doughty humans on the ground is a tribute to the singular power of cinema to imagine the unknown.

Nope (2022).