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This 'Quiet Place' prequel is a little too mum on backstory

Samira (Lupita Nyong’o) and her cat Frodo try to avoid alien attack in <em>A Quiet Place: Day One.</em>
Gareth Gatrell
/
Paramount Pictures
Samira (Lupita Nyong’o) and her cat Frodo try to avoid alien attack in A Quiet Place: Day One.

It’s no surprise that A Quiet Place: Day One has fared so well with audiences. Horror is a reliable draw in theaters, and the Quiet Place movies, about deadly aliens that can hear a twig snap from miles away, are especially fun to watch in a packed house. Like the human characters on screen, we stay silent, daring not to cough, scream or slurp our sodas too loudly.

The first two movies, both directed by John Krasinski, followed an upstate New York family struggling to survive several months after the aliens first arrived. Part of what made the movies so creepily effective was that they told us little about the monsters themselves — where they came from or what they were doing on planet Earth, beyond killing as many humans as possible.

Now, with A Quiet Place: Day One, the series shifts gears. Taking over for Krasinski, the writer-director Michael Sarnoski rewinds back to the very start of the invasion and introduces a new set of characters. Lupita Nyong’o plays Samira, a terminally ill woman who finds herself on a day trip to New York City along with other patients from her hospice. Samira didn’t want to come, but she’d been promised pizza and couldn’t resist. She’s brought along her support cat, whose name is Frodo. That’s fitting, of course, since Manhattan is about to become a present-day Mordor — a land of ash, smoke and destruction, as the aliens descend from the sky and immediately begin their murderous rampage.

The aliens are blind and hunt entirely by sound, which means that anyone who screams is toast. But Samira is one of a bunch of survivors who hush up early on and quickly realize that they can’t make any noise. This seems to contradict the first movie, which implied that it took humanity longer than five minutes to figure out the rules of this lethal game. It’s all a little fuzzy, and it’s disappointing that A Quiet Place: Day One doesn’t give us a bigger, clearer picture of the global invasion.

Instead, it focuses on Samira and her new friend, Eric, an English law student played by an appealing Joseph Quinn, from Stranger Things. Eric is shellshocked and quickly latches on to Samira, following her wherever she goes; against her better judgment, she lets him. In one wordless scene, the two try to dodge the aliens in the lobby of a large office building, but their racing and panting give them away, as the monsters shriek and smash their way into the building.

For the most part, though, A Quiet Place: Day One does not consist of wall-to-wall mayhem; at times it seems to forget it’s an action movie. I say this with some admiration. Sarnoski made a striking debut in 2021 with the Nicolas Cage drama Pig, a darkly funny crime story that was also a moving rumination on love and loss. He attempts something equally poignant and character-driven here, with lengthy scenes of Samira and Eric getting to know each other. The two leads have a sweet end-of-the-world chemistry, and Nyong’o, so good in Jordan Peele’s Us, proves that she can anchor another horror vehicle without uttering so much as a scream.

At a certain point, though, it’s not enough. The absence of broader narrative context made sense in the first movie, but with this latest, or rather earliest, chapter, I found myself wanting to learn more. Sarnoski does provide some sweeping details; the fact that the aliens can’t swim plays out in ingenious ways on an island like Manhattan. And the director plants at least one clue about the aliens that will probably pay off in another Quiet Place movie down the road.

Day One does have two big things going for it, namely that it’s a movie for pizza lovers and cat lovers. While other survivors head south to evacuate by ferry boat, Samira goes north in search of her favorite pizza parlor; she knows she doesn’t have long, and before the cancer or the aliens get her, she wants a slice.

And Frodo is with her every step of the way. Cats are natural scene stealers, and Frodo is especially compelling, in part, because you keep worrying that he’ll hiss or yowl or cough up a hairball. But no: Frodo turns out to be one implausibly quiet cat, which is a relief, since one wrong noise could have quickly turned the movie into Apocalypse Meow.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.