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Get Out of the Way 

Summer blockbuster “Nope” is a memorable misfire, while Netflix’s “The Gray Man” is dead on arrival.

click to enlarge British actor Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood in "Nope," the latest sci-fi horror movie from "Get Out" director and former sketch comedian Jordan Peele ("Mad TV").

British actor Daniel Kaluuya as OJ Haywood in "Nope," the latest sci-fi horror movie from "Get Out" director and former sketch comedian Jordan Peele ("Mad TV").

Writer-director Jordan Peele has an enviable problem. His first film, “Get Out,” was successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. Released in 2017 on the cusp of Donald Trump’s ascendency as president, “Get Out” is a “Stepford Wives” clone with a racial twist that homed in on a hot moment in this country’s tedious culture wars. Lightning in a bottle.

Never mind that the film has a cop-out ending and a third act that could’ve come out of a routine slasher movie. Lightning in a bottle transcends quality. Whether you like “Get Out” or not, it was undeniably a movie of the moment. You can’t plan for that. With “Us” and now “Nope,” Peele has bent over backwards trying to plan a zeitgeist event. Just ‘a’ movie won’t do for the director of “Get Out.” Every movie forever hence must be “the” movie.

“Get Out” was loose, funny, and occasionally scary. “Us” and “Nope” are hermetic and overstuffed with cryptic signifiers. They are Peele’s audition reels for auteur status. They aren’t to be watched, but to be pondered. “Us” had a great gimmick, offering a home invasion story in which the invaders were the heroes’ doppelgangers. But siege movies aren’t enough for a modern auteur. For some reason, “Us” had to eventually be about … the hypocrisy of the Hands Across America campaign, and pivot on Peele’s love for “C.H.U.D.” and “Candyman.”

Correspondingly, “Nope” can’t merely be an alien invasion movie. It has to have a big overriding obsession which must be expressed via carefully planted objects in the frame, and plotting that makes no sense except on a thematic level. I’m going to discuss “Nope” in some detail because I believe it is my job to write a column, rather than serve as yet another PR person for an overhyped movie. I’m going to take Peele’s geeky bait at my own peril as well as yours. If spoilers be your allergy, ye been warned.

If you are but a mere mortal looking to watch a horror movie, “Nope” is going to seem stubbornly arbitrary. The film is set in a mountainous gulch in California, where siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) are attempting to take control of the ranch left to them by their father (Keith David), who has died mysteriously. The Haywoods are the descendants of the Black horse rider captured by Eadweard Muybridge in the early film “Horse in Motion.” Muybridge is famous, while OJ and Emerald’s relative is not; his likeness was captured and exploited while he was forgotten. What does this have to do with an alien invasion? OJ and Emerald wish to capture footage proving that the alien spaceship hovering above their ranch exists, so they may get rich. They want to profit from an image, assuming the empowering role of a Muybridge.

Even this early into the premise, I’m getting hitched on the film’s convolutions. In a media age saturated with everything, in which people choose their own reality and nothing sticks in public consciousness for more than a few days, OJ and Emerald think they’re going to get rich from UFO footage? That thinking makes no sense, especially coming from a couple of jaded Black young adults. It makes even less sense considering that the Haywood family has direct experience with being on the losing end of appropriation. If I sound nitpicky, it’s because Peele invites nitpicking with his deliberate, anal-retentive, outright insane plotting. Every detail is labored over, and all this Muybridge/Haywood business intellectually complements the other strands in the story.

OJ and Emerald sell horses to Jupe Park (Steven Yuen), a former child TV star who runs a sideshow attraction near the ranch. Jupe has a macabre backstory: as a child, his second TV show was cancelled after a monkey ran amok on set, killing or significantly hurting everyone in the cast but him. The monkey’s name is Gordy, and he’s accorded his own chapter in the film, along with several horses and the alien itself. They are all examples of subjects exploited for fame, like the Haywood horse rider, with damning consequences.

The authentically chilling flashback to Gordy’s rampage rates as the finest set piece in Peele’s career so far: he drops the cutesy self-consciousness and leans full-tilt into utter, inexplicable horror. Jupe is hiding underneath a table as Gordy beats his cast members to death, while the “Audience” prompt lights blink on and off. Gordy approaches Jupe and reaches his bloody paw out to the boy, who returns with an outstretched hand. There are many references to Steven Spielberg throughout “Nope,” but this image is the most arresting, suggesting a grotesque perversion of Elliott and E.T. touching fingers.

Right about this time, it’s fair to ask what a flashback to a killer monkey, however brilliantly executed, has to do with a UFO circling a farmhouse, or with (check notes) the faded legacy of a Black cowboy. Less than nothing on a literal level, but repeat with me again: “Nope” is a movie organized around theme.

Jupe suffered a profound trauma that he’s laundered into a living. He speaks affectionately of a “SNL” sketch about the Gordy incident, though he’s haunted. Pop culture has turned something awful into profitable kitsch, spinning agony into fodder for the media mill. UFOs are basically kitsch now too, but when did they first become such a profitable hot topic? During the 1950s or thereabouts, in the aftermath of the Second World War, when Americans were terrified of being obliterated by the atomic bomb.

“Nope” is more oblique than “Get Out” or even “Us,” but dialogue offers hints as to What It Means. Jupe refers to the aliens as “The Viewer,” and damn near looks straight into the camera, at us. Gordy, before he’s killed, looks directly at us too. The second creepiest scene in the film, staged with a masterful illusion of offhandedness, involves a fake-out regarding the aliens. Creatures appear to be crawling around in OJ’s horse stables, until they’re revealed to be Jupe’s costumed children. In the shadows, the creature outfits resemble little gray aliens, with wide, vast, pitiless eyes. In daylight, they resemble monkeys. Which is to say that Gordy’s legacy of terror and exploitation is connected, almost subliminally, to the rumors of aliens in the valley. These various stories suggest a miasma of polluted fame, indicting an entertainment industry built on a foundation of savagery.

Exploiting animals and, I guess, aliens is rhymed with the exploitation of Blacks and women—the sort of stuff that a Spielberg movie like “E.T.” glosses over. The characters in “Nope” come very close to admitting that they are trapped in a movie, like the characters in Jim Jarmusch’s similarly themed and vastly superior “The Dead Don’t Die.” There’s even a whiff of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” in “Nope,” as both are westerns about fading, perhaps illusory ways of life.

This is a motherlode of textural detritus for a slender alien invasion story to carry. “Nope” has a theme and a situation but little in the way of an actual plot. After an hour or so of riffs on images and spectacle and their insidious roots as well as our insidious hunger for them, “Nope” settles into “Jaws” territory for the remainder of its very leisurely 135-minute run, with a soupcon of “Signs” for flavor.

Utilizing the sky in place of the ocean of “Jaws” is a clever idea, and Peele has the formal chops to exploit it, until the film collapses into a mush of half-formed conceits that even I wasn’t able or willing to parse. For the film’s final 30 minutes, I have no idea why the characters are running around or what they’re trying to do, apart from catching footage of the ship, with the help of a tech guy, Angel (Brandon Perea), and a cinematographer, Antlers (Michael Wincott). What is it with these names? Must everything be a Signifier to Be Parsed Later?

The alien itself, which the film’s marketing has wisely refused to reveal to audiences, is the ultimate embodiment of Peele’s obsession with signifying over storytelling. The UFO is not a vehicle for the aliens but the alien itself—creepy idea!

But that alien opens up its shell to reveal a creature that suggests what might happen if a theater curtain were turned into a giant hot air balloon. It’s irrational, inorganic, and truly alien-feeling. It’s also astonishingly boring. Its mouth-like apparatus resembles a movie theater screen because, you see, it’s funneling our appropriation back to us as we appropriate it in turn, and on and on. Peele may fancy himself above routine genre pleasures, but it’s a bad sign when kids in monkey outfits are scarier than your actual alien.

I half admire “Nope.” It stubbornly refuses to give its audience conventional pleasure, and there are moments of rapt intensity that reveal the filmmaker that Peele can be if he’d get out of his own way as a screenwriter-slash-aspiring PhD recipient in horror semiotics. Ultimately, however, the film that “Nope” most explicitly recalls is Ang Lee’s “Hulk.” Both are pretentious, ponderous, and so determined to be great that they aren’t even good. They are fun to talk about yet pre-dissected, dead from the neck down.

click to enlarge Ryan Gosling plays "a good assassin with values" in Netflix's "The Gray Man."
  • Ryan Gosling plays "a good assassin with values" in Netflix's "The Gray Man."

Give “Nope” this: it’s a memorable misfire. I’ll take those any day over the calculated pointlessness of something like Joe and Anthony Russo’s “The Gray Man.”

It takes a certain kind of gall to make a movie this generic and cite movies like “Shoot the Piano Player” and “Heat” as your influences. What “The Gray Man” truly suggests is a cherry deal brokered by Netflix with stars and marketable key words such as “spy,” “action,” and maybe “bam bam” and “boom boom.”

There’s nothing going on in this movie, which posits that Marvel productions aren’t so much movies as drugs to be kicked. After helming several “Avengers” sequels, the Russos wanted to move on, but to what? What’s “bam-bammy” enough after “Endgame?” The apparent answer is a “Bourne Identity” knockoff with Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, and Billy Bob Thornton.

Gosling is a good assassin with values—just go with it. Evans is a bad assassin, who doesn’t kill people according to American protocol. He also has a silly mustache to show that Evans, despite his mountainous biceps and fat-free body, isn’t vain. In movies like “Drive” and “Blade Runner 2049,” Gosling perfected morose underacting as a defense against underwritten roles, and here he similarly makes doing nothing into a fashion statement. Occasionally, Gosling’s performance is as witty as a bloated action behemoth will allow. By contrast, Evans overacts a storm, attempting to muddy his image as Captain America and position himself as the next Nicolas Cage. Evans isn’t without talent, but a movie this impersonal would probably swallow up even the real Cage.

It’s hard to like a movie that recruits Thornton, a great actor, to play a hostage-slash-MacGuffin. It’s harder to like a movie that tries so strenuously to pretend that it isn’t generic globe-trotting, kill-everything-in-sight trash.

The Russos drop in retro songs, in the try-too-hard, faux-Tarantino tradition, and saturate the frames in blasts of neon color, suggesting a superficial allegiance to, yes, Nicolas Winding Refn, of “Drive.” None of that matters if the action doesn’t swing or sting, which it doesn’t, or if the characters aren’t anymore than Teflon, which they aren’t. For the love of God do not see “The Gray Man” in the theater. It’s on Netflix today, and from the comfort of your home you can go get popcorn—be sure to leave the movie running while you do so—or, better yet, turn it off.

“Nope” is currently playing in theaters, while “The Gray Man” is available in theaters and on Netflix.

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