I saw A Quiet Place Part II in a large multiplex theater that was entirely empty except for me. Which is odd, considering that this sequel to the hugely successful 2018 horror film A Quiet Place is also making a ton of money. With this early sign of life from a post-lockdown box office, the collective sigh of relief from everyone in the film industry is probably big enough to interfere with weather patterns right about now.
It was my first trip to a movie theater since the pandemic shutdown over a year ago, and the echoing vastness of that strangely private screening room helped make the movie even creepier. Add to this uneasiness the fact that A Quiet Place Part II was shot in my stomping grounds of Western New York and it all made for a pretty strange experience. Watching the film all alone felt like I was enacting a scene from a typical post-apocalyptic horror movie, in which the protagonist wanders into empty public spaces and tries to enjoy the old popular entertainments in solitude, right before the resumption of the zombie attacks, or whatever the monsters happen to be.
The monsters in A Quiet Place I and II are huge, blind, slimy, angular, leaping aliens with double rows of sharp teeth and acute hearing — they hunt by sound alone. It’s a smart horror film premise — any humans hoping to survive are forced into a life of total, permanent, Trappist-monk-level silence. It fills the imagination immediately, how hopelessly difficult that would be, and how many times a day you’d probably doom yourself and your loved ones by accidentally dropping a fork or stepping on a squeaky floorboard, and then making gruesome death even more certain by automatically exclaiming, “Oh shit!”
This visceral premise propelled the original A Quiet Place to major critical and commercial success. Cowritten (with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck) and directed by John Krasinski (The Office, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan), the film stars married couple Krasinski and Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada, Mary Poppins) as Lee and Evelyn Abbott. They’ve rigged up an elaborate underground survival system to try to ride out the alien invasion with their children: hearing-impaired teenager Regan (played by deaf actor Millicent Simmonds of Wonderstruck), and anxious pre-teen Marcus (Noah Jupe).
The terror of parenthood is the obvious central theme. Even under the best of conditions, raising children holds fearful challenges, and we aren’t living under the best of conditions in the real world. In the original A Quiet Place, it’s revealed that Evelyn is pregnant and will have to bear the child without making a sound, as well as figure out how to prevent the baby’s cries from being heard. The timing suggests that the pregnancy predated the alien invasion, because it’s impossible to imagine that any parents would deliberately get pregnant at such a time of red-alert danger (or had forgotten to pick up the birth control during their pharmacy raids). This pregnancy plot point ratchets up the overall sense of peril to excruciating levels, far beyond even the ordinary agony of overseeing vulnerable children in a world filled with menace.
Evelyn despairs, “Who are we, if we can’t protect them?”
If you recall, A Quiet Place starts powerfully on “Day 89” of this apocalyptic scenario, as the family walks barefoot into town for supplies, treading softly on sand trails, and taking what they need from a ransacked, abandoned supermarket. They’re silent, relying on sign language to communicate sparingly. One can gather from Regan’s cochlear hearing device that she’s the reason they’re all fluent in American Sign Language (ASL).
And that’s what you do in the initial sequences of A Quiet Place — “gather” what’s going on, and guess at what terrible thing has happened to condemn these people to a life of tense noiselessness and elaborate preparations to avoid making any inadvertent sound. There can be no dropped forks if you use no silverware at meals, for example.
There’s no way a sequel can replicate the engrossing impact of the first film, especially its refusal of exposition and explication at the beginning, leaving the audience to try to grasp what’s going on. That’s something which happens far too infrequently in our film-watching-for-dummies era.
A Quiet Place Part II, a weaker, plottier film — but still full of scares — goes exactly the other way, starting at “Day 1” with an explanatory prequel to the events of the first film, showing us how ordinary life ended forever when the aliens landed. Right before that calamity, the Abbotts are attending a local little league baseball game, where Marcus nervously awaits his turn at bat. Such a scene of old-fashioned Americana, featuring the sport that was once “the national pastime,” calls attention to the deliberate throwback qualities of the franchise, in which America is approximately the same place it was in 1950s movies and TV shows. Everyone knows everyone else in white heartland towns, men are heads of households, taciturn and protective, and women are emotionally engaged nurturers of children.
Actor Simmonds, who coached her castmates in ASL, noted that Krasinski as Lee Abbott was enacting his traditional protector role even in the way he signed: “…[A]ll of his signs are very curt and short,” while Blunt’s signs as the nurturing Evelyn “are much more poetic and gesture-y.” Only death, catastrophe, and total social disorder shifts these roles in the Quiet Place films.
Once the backstory of the alien invasion is established, the sequel leaps forward in time to “Day 487” and the aftermath of the events of the original film. We find Evelyn and Regan having come to the fore in defense of the family. Regan has discovered how to torture the supersensitive hearing of the aliens, and Evelyn backs her up with a gun.
They soon stumble upon the booby-trapped lair of their former neighborhood friend Emmett. Only Emmett’s not so friendly now, having lost his family to aliens and illness, and turned paranoid in defense of his scant provisions and hideout in an abandoned industrial site. He’ll have to be won over in order to return to the role of the protective, self-sacrificing parental figure being celebrated in these films.
It should be noted that Emmett is played by Cillian Murphy, an old hand at postapocalyptic films after starring in 28 Days Later (2003). That’s a film with a much more definite sociopolitical critique of the ways in which a nightmarish collusion of big government, science, and the military are bringing disaster upon us. It’s inheriting the long critical tradition established by George A. Romero’s zombie films, which never failed to relate the rampage of monsters to the abuse of state power and the failure of people to unite against their common enemy. In contrast, A Quiet Place I and II feature an apocalypse that’s nobody’s fault but the aliens’.
We’re old hands at disaster scenarios ourselves, though not just from the movies. It makes sense that the Quiet Place films are set in the very near future, the 2020s, because we might as well add an alien invasion to our list of real-life horrors — pandemics, perpetual warfare, climate change catastrophes, the Doomsday Clock set at near-midnight. And we know from experience exactly how erratic any government or scientific response is likely to be, leaving us to fend for ourselves for an indefinite period.
There’s an underlying feeling, while watching these films, that in addition to enjoyable scares, they provide a handy preparation checklist. Sure, we know now that there’ll be a run on toilet paper, but should we be thinking oxygen tanks might come in handy for the next disaster? Stockpile the drugs, obviously — especially painkillers. And if we learn nothing else from the Quiet Place films — don’t forget the birth control.