Lupita Nyong’o in Taut Horror Prequel 5

If you want to breathe new life into a horror movie built around silence as the only means of surviving an alien invasion, there are countless worse ideas than relocating the story from smalltown U.S.A. to over-populated New York City. Opening screen text over an aerial shot of Manhattan accompanied by the cacophonous sounds of car horns, sirens and shouting informs us that the Big Apple has an average noise level of 90 decibels, the equivalent of a human scream. The setting alone makes the taut and consistently terrifying A Quiet Place: Day One an intense experience that deftly extends a durable franchise.

Lupita Nyong’o excelled at pulling us inside her character’s fear in Jordan Peele’s bone-chilling Us, so her riveting lead performance here as a woman trying to stay alive while already living on borrowed time comes as no surprise. The bigger question was whether Michael Sarnoski could follow his assured debut feature, Pig, with something equally distinctive.

A Quiet Place: Day One

The Bottom Line

The move from the sticks to the big city pays off.

Release date: Friday, June 28
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Joseph Quinn, Alex Wolff, Djimon Hounsou
Director-screenwriter: Michael Sarnoski

Rated PG-13,
1 hour 40 minutes

The short answer is a definite yes. The sophomore writer-director adapts to the requirements of the genre, expertly sustaining tension, peppering big scares throughout and earning our emotional investment in the key characters. Plus a cat. But he also finds the space to infuse many of the qualities that elevated his 2021 Nicolas Cage vehicle, notably control, restraint, compassion and the purring motor of a movie that’s as much a melancholy quest narrative as a thriller about mortal peril.

John Krasinki’s 2018 sleeper hit, A Quiet Place, began on Day 89 of the alien attack before jumping ahead to more than a year later, focusing on a loving family struggling to deal with their grief and remain safe in life-threatening circumstances.

The 2021 sequel, A Quiet Place Part 2, continued their story but added a 10-minute prologue unfolding on Day One, in which families at a Little League baseball game watch in alarm as what looks like a meteorite hurtles through the sky and makes impact in the near distance. While parents are still rushing to get their kids home amid a state of escalating panic, spindly, cabbage-headed creatures with lethal claws descend en masse, moving with dizzying speed to pounce on and butcher any human that makes a sound.

The new film mirrors that mayhem in a setting not conducive to silence. Sarnoski starts patiently, introducing Nyong’o’s Samira making a surly contribution to her therapy group at a hospice just outside the city. If her angry resignation doesn’t clue us in, then her transdermal fentanyl patches are a clear indication that she has terminal cancer, while her demeanor suggests that she never expected to stick around this long.

Kind nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff, reuniting with Sarnoski after Pig) considers himself Samira’s friend even if she scoffs at that notion. But he persuades her to come on a group outing to a New York marionette theater, using the promise of pizza on the way home as an incentive. Cradling her inseparable service cat, Frodo, she barely gets through the opening act of the puppet show before making an exit. When Reuben tells her they’ve been instructed to return to the hospice ASAP because of some unstated city-wide emergency, she’s pissed that he reneges on the pizza promise.

As a pre-titles sequence, these establishing scenes are brisk and involving, dispensing with needless exposition. What’s most striking is that when a shower of meteorites hits Earth, the city explodes almost instantly, and as Samira staggers from the hospice bus in a blinding cloud of white dust, the images inevitably evoke haunting associations with the rain of ash that blanketed Lower Manhattan on 9/11. She takes refuge inside the theater with Reuben and a family headed by Djimon Hounsou’s Henri. But devastating tragedy soon follows.

Despite the chaos and confusion, it’s quickly established that the extraterrestrial predators are sightless and respond only to noise. The mobilized military also figure out fast that the creatures can’t swim, prompting an evacuation plan via ferries from South Street Seaport. But headstrong Samira insists on heading uptown to Harlem, battling a wave of stunned New Yorkers shuffling downtown and occasionally getting picked off when they make an inadvertent sound.

It gradually becomes clear that Samira’s former home is in Harlem and her determination to get herself a slice from her favorite pizzeria has deep personal significance from a happier time in her life.

Seeing New York swarming with vicious monsters — scrambling over buildings and leaving giant gashes in their walls, while the streets are lined with burning car wrecks and destroyed storefronts — makes a big impression.

Sarnoski and a crack visual effects team position these scenes in the best tradition of alien apocalypse movies. But they acquire added dimension from the unsettling spectacle of brash, noisy Manhattan shocked into nerve-shredding silence. Every sound seems heightened, and every sudden noise sends a jolt right through you, along with a shiver of dread, an effect given amplitude by the discreet use of Alexis Grapsas’ relatively minimalist score.

The other significant character, who enters well into the proceedings, is Eric (Joseph Quinn), a young Englishman in New York to study law. He’s found by Frodo, emerging petrified from a flooded subway stairwell, and then follows the cat back to Samira.

In a gender reversal of the usual disaster movie dynamic that’s never pushed too hard, Samira is the tough, unsentimental one, telling him he needs to join the mass exodus heading south, while Eric is initially helpless, shaken to his core. They form a tentative bond in her apartment, their conversation — and even their screams — muted by the din of a heavy thunderstorm, But even when the natural intimacy of strangers thrust together by tragedy blossoms between them and Eric gathers his wits enough to show chivalry and concern as Samira’s health keeps fading, the character is never anything so banal as a White Knight protector.

Production designer Simon Bowles and DP Pat Scola (who was also behind the brooding beauty of Pig) take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by New York. Places we automatically associate with care and comfort like a hospital become potential death traps as noise brings the aliens crashing through glass walls and skylights. A cathedral serves as a place of reprieve, despite a massive hole formed by a creature smashing through its tiled floor and another one ripped out of its frescoed dome.

One of the most nail-biting set-pieces takes place underground in a subway station, where an alien uses its long, nimble limbs to scamper along the walls of a flooded tunnel while Samira and Eric, tugging Frodo along on a hastily improvised mini-raft, are carried by the surging water.

It’s quite a ways into the movie before Sarnoski, working with editors Gregory Plotkin and Andrew Mondshein, releases the tension long enough to get to know a little more about the leads. But even without the poignant insights into Samira’s background and the revisiting of places that were special to her in the past, she and Eric are fully dimensional characters. The actors’ chemistry yields deeply affecting impact in their tender final scenes, rendered more powerful by their wordlessness.

Rising star Quinn, a Brit stage actor best known for TV work like season four of Stranger Things or the Kenneth Lonergan adaptation of Howards End, shows the benefits of casting a face we don’t already know from a string of movies. His sensitivity is so acute, and his big brown eyes so brimming with feeling that Eric’s resourcefulness and steadily summoned bravery almost catch us off guard.

Wolff and Hounsou bring soulfulness to secondary roles, while Nyong’o carries the movie on very capable shoulders. Never under-selling the crippling terror that rules Samira’s every move, the actor conveys the conflict between the character’s bitterness and her humanity, remaining tenacious and decisive even when her body starts seriously failing her. She keeps you glued throughout.

The other star is Frodo, a screen cat for the ages to rank with Ulysses from Inside Llewyn Davis or Jonesy from Alien, played by two chonky black-and-white felines named Nico and Schnitzel. He has the gentle nature and cuddliness of a service cat but also the badass curiosity to explore precarious situations and feed his humans’ anxieties.

Sarnoski has done a laudable job, cooking up a spinoff that adheres to the rules of the first two movies by staying focused on the smallest group possible of core characters while spreading the fear factor and suspense across a much larger canvas. He also avoids the trap of over-explaining anything, making the terror here arguably even more primal than the previous films, in which the characters had a strategic assist from the knowledge that the aliens are sensitive to high-frequency sound, causing them to retreat.

It’s not often we get a post-apocalyptic saga that remains so personal, so in touch with human loss as something not just forgotten in the next jump scare but given room to linger, an aspect that survives the shift away from parents protecting their children. The third chapter of A Quiet Place shows that this smart, reliably frightening series, which began with a modestly budgeted feature that performed way beyond expectations, is by no means tapped out.

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