A Quiet Place: Day One is moving – but sloppy

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Paramount Pictures (Credit: Paramount Pictures)Paramount Pictures

The latest Quiet Place film is a ‘beautifully realised’ emotional story – but it doesn’t match its predecessors for suspense.

Even before those noise-seeking creatures descend on New York and turn the city into rubble, Samira – the main character in A Quiet Place: Day One, played by Lupita Nyong’o with her usual eloquence ­– is in trouble. It would be too much of a spoiler to reveal more. It’s enough to say that she is ill and has good reason to be cranky and depressed when she reluctantly agrees to go on a group trip to New York on the promise of theatre and a pizza.

Her emotional state is the driving force in this prequel to A Quiet Place (2018) and its sequel, both blockbusters written and directed by John Krasinski. There are the same giant aliens, spindly brown spider-y creatures who are blind but ultrasensitive to noise, who will swoop in and destroy any human who makes the slightest sound. But instead of the bucolic family farm and small town of the first films, the prequel shows us the first invasion in a location that sounds like, but isn’t, a jokey premise: just try finding some quiet in New York City.

Another major difference is that this instalment was directed by Michael Sarnoski, with a story by him and Krasinski. It is only Sarnoski’s second feature. His first, Pig (2021), with Nicolas Cage as a reclusive truffle-hunter, impressively blended a character study with a crime plot. A Quiet Place: Day One takes a similar approach, but here the hybrid – of sci-fi and human drama – is less successfully blended. Sarnoski is able to handle the action scenes and is especially good with actors. But after an initial spurt of action, he seems to lose interest in the suspense of it all.

The emotional story, in which Samira and a frightened young law student named Eric (Joseph Quinn) create a touching friendship while trying to stay alive, is beautifully realised. Thanks to Nyong’o and Quinn’s stirring performances, Day One is never uninteresting. But Krasinski’s two instalments set a high bar. They are endlessly tense and fraught with the parents’ (Krasinski and Emily Blunt) desperate desire to protect their children. Day One refreshes the series’ concept but is also the least of the three, a solid enough but diminished addition.

Samira already seems weary when she arrives in New York on the group’s bus, wearing a lived-in oversized sweater and a beanie, clutching her cat, Frodo. She is not happy when her theatre experience turns out to be a small puppet show. In roles smaller than you might expect, Alex Wolff plays the group leader, Reuben, and Djimon Hounsou is Henri, a member of the theatre audience and the only character to recur from the earlier films. In A Quiet Place Part II, he is one of the survivors who left New York on a boat and landed on an island.

A Quiet Place: Day One

Director: Michael Sarnoski

Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Joseph Quinn, Alex Wolff, Djimon Hounsou

Run time: 1hr 39m

Before long, white streaks as if from jets appear across the sky and explosions rock the streets. The creatures come crashing down to Earth. The bus Samira is on explodes, but she miraculously escapes, covered in grey ash. Sarnoski’s action is at its best in this early set piece, which puts us in the center of Samira’s disorientation. She swirls around, unable to see through the ash filling the air. The camera lets us viscerally feel her panic, and Nyong’o’s wide-eyed look conveys her terror. The film is never quite this intense again. The New York streets were actually shot in a studio outside London, but it doesn’t matter because the shattered landscape becomes unrecognisable.

When the air literally clears, and somehow people have learned to be quiet or be killed, Samira tells Reuben she is still going for pizza, at her favorite place in Harlem. This is where the screenplay becomes too cagey for its own good. Looking at the devastation, any lucid person would know that no one is handing out hot, fresh pizzas anywhere anymore.

The film doesn’t bother to say that her proposed walk, from Chinatown to Harlem, is a tough trek almost the length of Manhattan. There turns out to be a touching explanation for all this, but it comes so late you might spend most of the film wondering whether her plan is sheer stupidity.

Somehow, Frodo is always able to find Samira, even in the chaos of rubbled New York, and must be the quietest cat ever

As Samira walks North, a mass evacuation of people heads South toward the water, boats and safety because the creatures can’t swim. Going against the tide of pedestrians she is thrown to the ground and almost crushed but makes her way and soon encounters Eric, who emerges from the flooding subway and spots her. He is alone in New York and insists on joining her.

Their developing friendship, not romantic but filled with generosity on both sides, overtakes the film. Quinn is enormously moving, as Eric goes from being terrified to being as strong as he needs to be to help Samira. They stop overnight at her father’s old, empty apartment, where a convenient loud thunderstorm allows them to whisper and explain their stories. The creatures are still there, with mouths that open to become tulip-shaped claws filled with sharp teeth, but the film’s pacing has slowed and they hardly seem threatening, even when they are meant to be.

The lovely, silent final stretch makes it clear that Sarnoski’s focus was always on grief and life, not monsters. Those themes and the ending are affecting, but by then the film seems to have left common sense behind along with suspense. Somehow, Frodo is always able to find Samira, even in the chaos of rubbled New York, and must be the quietest cat ever, without a single dangerous purr or meow. A note tucked in a pocket manages to survive being underwater and emerges perfectly legible. Plausibility is never the point in sci-fi, but Krasinski’s Quiet Place films made every move seem like some brilliant plan to outwit the creatures. As an emotional journey Day One has its moments. For a supposedly scary movie, it’s a little bit sloppy.

★★★☆☆

A Quiet Place: Day One is released on 28 June.

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