As a species, humanity has shown a healthy evolutionary disposition for engaging in flight rather than fight, the better to live and build civilisation another day.
Of course, though, sometimes the challenge before us demands a fearsomely fight-driven response, something we instinctually seem to know when a particular problem plagues us and which we are well adapted to handle.
In Jordan Peele’s new film, Nope, you could be forgiven for thinking at first that flight is going to kick fight to the kerb when brother and sister horse wranglers, Otis Jr. aka OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald aka Em (Keke Palmer who’s on exuberant form) working on a dusty Californian ranch which supplies equine actors for Hollywood productions, suddenly fighting themselves confronted by a strange enemy hiding in the clouds above them.
At first, all the taciturn, thoughtful, dutiful OJ and his far more buoyantly loquacious and freewheeling sister are weird distortions in electricity supply and a strange shape moving through the clouds which could be a UFO but honestly how is that even possible?
It’s at this point that there’s a healthy amount of mental and emotional flight, even if physically they stay put on the ranch, because the idea that something that fantastical is out there is too much to wrestle with, especially when far more pressing, earthly problems such as going broke are besetting them.
Peele, who wrote, produced and directed the film, is careful, as he masterfully was with his previously two lauded films, Get Out and Us, both of which gave the horror genre a healthy dose of contemporary reinvention, to eke any suggestion of something otherworldly stalking the ranch and the nearby tourist trap where former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park runs a Western frontier town recreation which is as hackneyed as it is appealing to families looking for road trip diversions.
While it emerges that Ricky who survived a murderous chimp run amok on the set of 1998 sitcom Gordy and is traumatised as a result, is a true believer (he believes he has a unique link to the entity nicknamed Jean Jacket) – perhaps all that trauma makes the extraordinary or the dangerous seem eminently within the realm of possibility? – OJ and Em are more sceptical, mirroring the audience who is given a sense something is afoot but it may not be as darkly terrifying as the clues dropped judiciously throughout the early part of the film might suggest.
As Nope progresses, rife with expansive, brooding atmosphere and an impending, slow-building sense that something big and nasty this way comes – the threat is always just beyond the realm of understanding which makes it all the more compelling – the siblings, with the help of local electronics employee and UFO conspiracy theorist Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) begin to realise that whatever lurks above, which has already visited profound loss upon them, might be a far bigger threat that either are initially disposed to admit.
It’s at this point that the film, which flirts with outright horror, often heart-poundingly so before dialing it back, that the fight vs. flight mechanism comes mightily into play.
As they work to discover what is stalking them, and indeed everyone in the desert valley they call home, they move, sometimes at speed, between racing to save themselves and standing to oppose an entity who emerges in horrifying glory in the epic battle-filled final act where all the slowburn narrative sleight-of-hand is cast to the blood-soaked wind and rain.
With the horror pedal very much to the metal, Nope, which does suffer from some pacing issues as it flits between tension-filled waiting for the next shoe to drop and titanic battles to save lives, the ranch and the horses the siblings love, becomes something else entirely.
Laced with some truly dark moments, which are also infused with a great deal of comic intent because in the face of great danger, the gaping flaws in the way divergent people react to a threat are graphically displayed and they are honestly simultaneously scary and black humour amusing, Nope is a film that dives deep into how ordinary people struggling to relate to each other and make a living, or grappling with ongoing PTSD, deal with something truly out of the ordinary coming their way.
Leaving aside the malevolence at work high in the sky, the exact nature of which must be left to the viewing, what emerges in Nope, as it does in all the very horror films that combines scares with deconstructions of what it means to be human, is how people handle their lives and their assumptions about what is real and what is not, being unceremoniously being turned on their heads.
While the burn is slow when it comes to OJ and Em and Ricky’s relationship with what is or isn’t out there, their reactions speak to the way in which people don’t always pick the right option when it comes to fight or flight, with our addiction to the intrigue and spectacle of something often cancelling out self-preservational caution.
While OJ and Em do end up taking the fight to Jean Jacket in ways that are harrowing, emotionally charged and simply spectacular in their execution – the cinematography is jaw-droppingly intense and makes looking away, even you’re creeped out, all but impossible – their fascination, and that of Angel and Ricky’s, with what it is and what it can do, goes beyond what’s healthy much of the time.
You can understand why that is since emotional trauma of two distinct kinds is informing OJ, Em and Ricky’s responses, and in the end how they respond, does make sense, but in amongst some very good decisions, there’s an unhealthy obsession with working out what’s going on that perhaps should’ve been set aside in favour of some good old flight time.
Still, Nope is at heart, a deep dive into what makes us human, and how past events can predispose us to reactions that may not be in our best interest; with a heady mix of gigantic spectacle, dark humour (the signature use of the word “nope” by OJ is pitch perfect) and some truly terrifying moments preceded by a lingering sense of dread and extreme disquiet, the film, while not perfect, is a thrilling descent into fear and terror and an energising ascent into what happens when fight wins out over flight and we take the battle to what truly terrifies us.