Thursday, June 27, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

It’s mostly Day Two, actually.

John Krasinski’s 2018 thriller A Quiet Place is not about an alien invasion. It’s not about the apocalypse. It’s not about humanity’s struggle to survive in a world where the slightest noise will result in certain death. Those are all elements of the film, for sure, but they’re not what it’s about. Not really. Instead, it’s about a family reeling from a traumatic event — the death of a child — and the unresolved resentment they harbor toward each other and themselves because of it. Lee (Krasinski) knows that Regan (Millicent Simmonds) didn’t intentionally cause the accident that killed his son, but he can’t help holding her at a distance because of it. Regan feels her father’s distance and resents him right back; her deafness is at fault, she tells herself, and it will always keep her out of his heart. The film then dramatizes that stalemate perfectly: They cannot — or will not? — talk about the grief that suffocates them. As in Godzilla, Jaws, The Babadook, and so many other great monster movies, the invaders of A Quiet Place are simply physical manifestations of the emotional conflicts within.
Helmed by Pig director Michael Sarnoski, A Quiet Place: Day One strives to deliver that same pathos in a new arena: New York City on Day One of the invasion. We begin with Sam (Lupita Nyong’o), a terminally-ill resident of an outer-borough hospice facility, on a field trip to the city arranged by head nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff). Decades younger than the rest of the group, Sam’s cynical detachment and biting gallows humor tell us all we need to know about her situation: She’s dying. She’s angry about it. No field trip is going to make it better. Sam only comes along in hopes of nabbing a slice of pizza in Harlem, where her apartment — and the life that went with it — has been lying dormant since her diagnosis. When all hell breaks loose and the military organizes rescue on the south side of the island, Sam instead takes the opportunity for an uptown odyssey. She has no illusions about survival; aliens or not, she doesn’t have long. Law student Eric (Joseph Quinn) soon joins her, and together they trek into the past — as silently as possible — recovering artifacts from the life she left behind.

Though the subtitle Day One suggests a sweeping prequel story that fills in the expository gaps left by the original film, Sarnoski (who shares story credit with John Krasinski) avoids deviating from the aesthetics of what is now — with the help of 2020’s A Quiet Place Part II, an upcoming video game, and a sequel slated for next year — a billion-dollar multimedia franchise. Day One is as grounded as its predecessors, a street-wise, handheld film driven by the rhythms of its tiny cast of characters. Save for the occasional fleet of helicopters passing overhead — and the tornado of creatures that inevitably crash about in its wake — Sarnoski lets the drama unfold mostly in silence, relying on the remarkable visual palette of a Manhattan in ruins to keep us engaged. Speaking of remarkable, Lupita Nyong’o’s face is surely the film’s most stunning visual effect, a gorgeous architectural landscape often caked in ash but never failing to communicate the totality of Sam’s loss, her despair, and eventually her resolve. Throw in her charming service cat — Frodo, an apt name for someone on a journey — and you have all the pieces of a thoughtful and provocative thriller.
And in many ways, Sarnoski is able to give us one. The first and third acts, in particular, feature a scattering of delicately-arranged, character-driven segments that highlight Sam’s unique mission: This isn’t a race to the escape ship. This isn’t about rescuing the cat. This isn’t about discovering the origins of the creatures (It never matters, studios! Despite what the internet says, we don’t really care!). This isn’t about survival. This is an elegy. A reverie. Sam is trying to feel, to remember, one last time before her inevitable death. And while that attention to character detail gives us a number of beautiful moments — including one of the most memorable final frames of a year chock-full of memorable final frames — they never congeal into real dramatic beats or character arcs. Day One’s action feels incidental, detached from the more lyrical character work that seems to hold the writer/director’s true interest. As a result, Day One largely fails to justify itself as a story, feeling much more like a B-plot edited out of another film or a short DLC chapter from a narrative video game.
Still, if we’re going to keep forcing independent filmmakers into the franchise space without any mid-budget training grounds — Pig reported a $3 million budget, with Day One coming in at $67 million — Sarnoski at least demonstrates that it’s possible to do so without getting swallowed up in blockbuster machinery. Day One isn’t a very good action film, but it doesn’t want to be. It’s not very scary — each jump scare is comically telegraphed a solid five seconds before it happens — but it doesn’t want to be. Hell, its sci-fi elements aren’t even all that interesting: Sarnoski’s focus on the creatures’ feet, growls, and tendency to pack hunt echo Jurassic Park’s raptors, a ballsy move for a series already deeply in debt to properties like The Mist and The Last of Us. But again, worldbuilding isn’t the point. So while it’s sure to underwhelm summer audiences looking for a big, bold escalation of the Quiet Place universe, we have to give Day One credit for getting away with something — while never entirely successful as a movie — much more valuable than empty franchise fare.

A Quiet Place: Day One hits theaters on Friday, June 28th.

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