At the beginning​ we hear voices, part of a stand-up routine perhaps – later we learn that they’re from a television show. One of them says: ‘You’d think a man who could send a rocket into space would be able to manage a halfway decent birthday present.’ The same voice comments after a short pause, ‘Nope.’ Jordan Peele’s third feature film takes this word as its title and offers several other interesting usages. All of them suggest that what we’re thinking or saying is absurdly wrong: a proposition that doesn’t need to be made, or that can’t be responded to in any other way. ‘What’s a bad miracle? Got a word for that? Nope.’ When a character considers making a dangerous move and then thinks better of it he says ‘Nope.’ And Peele has given an example from his own conversations about the film. ‘When you tell people it’s a scary movie a lot of the time they say: “Nope.”’

A more elaborate (and ancient) way of saying ‘Nope’ appears at the start of the film, in the form of a quotation from the Book of Nahum. It offers a projected answer to the question of whether God will treat his enemies kindly. ‘I will cast abominable filth at you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.’ The promise is a kind of trigger for the action. A man dies because a bit of filth falling from the sky hits him, and everyone is hungry for a spectacle, especially one that might bring in some money. And above all it hints at what alien creatures, if they visit earth, are going to be like. Will they be nice? Nope.

The film’s first scene, eerily mysterious and incomplete, is concerned with the non-human animal kingdom rather than the populations of other planets. A lamp lies broken on a floor, a girl’s unmoving legs protrude from behind a sofa, a blood-spattered chimpanzee stalks around looking angry. The film then cuts away to a different scene entirely. Later we learn the full story, in two instalments. In the first we see OJ and Emerald Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer), the brother and sister who are the film’s main protagonists, meeting Ricky Park (Steven Yeun), the owner of a Western theme park. He tells them about a chimpanzee who was the title character in a 1990s TV show called Gordy’s Home. Gordy was startled by a burst balloon and went berserk, killing members of his television family. Ricky, a child actor on the show, crouched under a table and survived. He appears unable to think about the massacre in non-showbiz terms. He mainly recounts the Saturday Night Live version of the event, enthusing over the performances.

In the second instalment, when Peele lets us see these events for ourselves, he starts the take from outside the set, only gradually moving into and around it. For a moment we think we are seeing a reconstruction of the horror, as of course in a literal sense we are. But in narrative terms this is all live. The set is the scene, the balloon bursts, Gordy kills and Ricky hides. In a strange twist, Gordy seems to become aware of what he has done. He doesn’t attack the little boy under the table, but tentatively holds out a fist to him in a gesture of friendship.

The film has other non-human stars. The man killed by the bit of aerial filth is OJ and Emerald’s father, who ran a horse farm supplying trained animals for work in film and television. Brother and sister inherit the business but don’t know how to make it work. OJ thinks they ought to sell the horses, and Emerald reminds some people shooting a television show that a horse played a key role in Muybridge’s famous studies of movement. She mentions that no one took the trouble to remember the name of the black jockey riding the horse, who was her and OJ’s grandfather several times removed.

OJ loves the horses and hates the fact that he has to sell them. He thinks he understands them and he may be right. But then the whole film, as its opening suggests, is about the unreliability of what we think, and even more perhaps about our tendency to think mainly in clichés, so that all creatures, in our minds, become caricatures of nature. ‘Every animal got rules,’ OJ says.

Then the film changes its ground. An alien is living in a cloud near the farm, and no one takes it seriously enough. OJ and Emerald want to photograph its movements, to get (and monetise) the visual scoop. They set up cameras and watch eagerly for suspicious signs or for more detritus to drop from the sky. They are helped by Angel (Brandon Perea), an assistant at the local appliance store, who memorably explains why the term UFO has been replaced by UAP – because no one understands what the latter means. He also describes some supposed navy-owned pictures of aliens as ‘shitty footage of an exact proof’.

In the film, the alien increasingly asserts itself. Violent rainstorms are its favourite form of abominable filth; for the characters it’s like sitting through an enormous car wash. At this point Peele takes a gamble with his theme that I’m not sure really comes off. The trick is double: to show that a UFO sighting might literally be true; and that this UFO will look and behave exactly like the clichéd representations we have always had of them. When the flying saucer appears it flies and looks like a saucer (with a hole in it), or like a vast sombrero that eats people. When it merges with the clouds it looks like a ragged parachute. The later part of the film becomes all about the alien, the way it claims its victims and who survives. This sequence is too long to be funny and too predictable to be scary. Still, the idea of the bad miracle lingers.

A central scene that does the same work better involves Ricky Park. He is conducting an outdoor show called ‘Star Lasso’, desert and mountains behind him. The audience includes a lady with a veil, to whom Ricky makes a special salute. She was an actress as a child, the only other survivor of the chimpanzee attack. A flicker of wind on the veil allows us to see her disfigured face. She might well be a reminder that aliens can be close to us, or that any creature at all, including humans, can become alien with the right provocation. But this lesson is a little late, since the alien is already here, and Ricky has been feeding horses to it as part of the rehearsals for his big new show. The scene ends while the clouds are threatening and Ricky is starting to worry. Later we learn that the alien ate Ricky and forty other people as well as the horse. We see a location in the rain. What could be more desolate than an empty, obsolete Western theme park?

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