IMAX has always been more of a gimmick to me as a moviegoer because it’s never truly added another level to a film other than a bigger screen and how loud the sound system is. But now I’ve seen Nope and I get it. Everything clicked as I watched Jordan Peele’s latest triple threat outing as writer, director, and producer with his newest film NOPE. The use of IMAX cameras for filming and use of sound to push the adrenaline to the next level, I was glued to the screen until the very last moment. I went into the theatre without watching trailers – which if you can do, I advise it! I even advise skipping this review and coming back after you’ve seen it, which I guess isn’t the best advice for a writer to say. I am not going to spoil anything about the film but I truly advise just going in with nothing but an open mind, especially if you can find a local IMAX theatre. NOPE is an experience unlike any other sci-fi horror that has come before. So saddle up because I’ve got thoughts.
NOPE follows OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) who run a horse farm in a massive valley in California. Their horses are trained for film as their great great great great grandfather starred in the first motion picture riding a horse so they’ve always had skin in the game. From the very start, things are not right in the valley as something dark looms.
Every shot of NOPE is so much larger than life in scale but so very human until it’s anything but. The use of the larger IMAX ratio allows Hoyte Van Hoytema (Director of Photography) and Jordan Peele to show the majesty of the valley where the majority of the film is set. It’s a testament to the natural beauty of the sweeping empty valley of trees, rocks, and blue skies above the Agua Dulce desert where the film was shot. It harkens back in a lot of ways to the settings of Westerns with vast openness and the beauty of nature. It’s married so well to a lot of the themes that the film is trying to capture such as nature vs humanity. Humans so often believe they can control and conquer nature but these shots of huge hills remind us just how small we are in the scale of things. This factors into the plot of the film in a perfect balance of the unsaid and the clearly stated.
One of the most important elements for horror, especially what I would consider a monster movie, is how much the film and actors make you like them. In a slasher, the characters are typically very unlikeable so you are almost excited to see them get what’s coming. But in monster movies, I want to like the human leads and I want to root for them. NOPE delivers on that ten fold with OJ and Emerald – who you will be nearly screaming at the scream to ensure their survival. Daniel Kaluuya and Emerald Haywood’s characters are very different people with OJ being more of a stern working person and Emerald being someone who is chasing their dreams even if it doesn’t seem responsible to her brother. Their dynamic is often opposed but that isn’t to say that it isn’t clear how much they care about one another. There is a scene very early in the film where Emerald is late for a shoot so they talk to OJ instead who is clearly very anxious about the part of the job that isn’t the horses themselves. While we see the character as almost stoic and strong throughout the rest of the film, we get to see his vulnerability from the very start. It’s a very human element in a film that has it’s true bread and butter in the alien. But Emerald shows up moments later just dripping in charisma as she talks to the crew. Both of the leads are absolute powerhouses of talent especially with selling small human elements that take the movie to the next level.
It’s time to talk about the elephant in the clouds in NOPE, the monster. The trailers and a lot of the promotional material tell you that it’s an alien, that just isn’t it. It’s so much more than an alien movie. It’s on a scale on which has never been done before. There is no little E.T. waddling around chasing people. NOPE is so much bigger than that in scale. For much of the film, you don’t see the alien which makes the reveal so much more satisfying. The intensity is driven home by Michael Abels score and the sound design by Johnnie Burn who match John Williams use of sound to drive home the fear in Jaws. I am going to leave it at that because I don’t want to ruin the shock that comes with the monster but I will say that we have truly never seen something so truly alien on screen.
Michael Abel is a master of composing. I could wax poetically here about his brilliant score to open this section but I want you to know my true thoughts without the extra flavor and zest. Michael Abel has written one of, if not the best score of the past 10 years. The score for NOPE perfectly matches the scale and themes of the film. Something in particular is his allusions to Aaron Copland. If you are not familiar with the works of Copland, many consider him to be the sound of America. The ballets he wrote capture the vastness of America’s valleys and plains which is something you find in the score written by Abel. While orchestrated music isn’t as wildly popular as it once was, Abel’s score captures so much of those sounds that Copland was known for. But in a much more modern sense with a modern sound of America. One piece in particular plays during the climax of the film that I almost stood up from my seat to clap during. I cannot emphasize enough how Michael Abel’s score could stand alone as the modern sound of America in a way no one else has captured but it drives the film to another level that I don’t think it would reach without it.
Stop reading this and go watch NOPE in IMAX.