REVIEW – ‘A Quiet Place: Day One’ is just as entertaining, exhilarating, and emotional as what’s followed before

When John Krasinski made the curious decision to set 2018’s A Quiet Place some 400 days after an alien invasion wiped out much of the human population, you could practically smell a prequel brewing in the distance. While the 2018 sequel opened with a prologue set during the alien’s arrival, a stand-alone spin-off beckoned, sans Krasinski in the director’s chair. It’s always a risk when a franchise passes its reins over to a new filmmaker. Thankfully, A Quiet Place: Day One is in the capable hands of writer/director Michael Sarnoski, the man responsible for the grossly underrated 2021 gem, Pig.

A rare prequel that entirely justifies its existence and resists the temptation to become another generic blockbuster, A Quiet Place: Day One is just as tense and gripping as its predecessors while still remaining a quietly (excuse the pun) compelling character piece. Led by two captivating performances from Lupita Nyong’o and Joseph Quinn, this origin chapter plays to its own beat while still connecting to the broader world established by Krasinski. In other words, this is precisely how a prequel should be done.

As the title suggests, the film naturally begins on the day the world changed forever. But first, it’s time to meet Sam (Nyong’o), a terminally ill cancer patient living in a hospice facility in Brooklyn. With her days seemingly numbered, Sam is clearly displeased with being stuck inside the confines of a care centre dominated by the elderly. In a bid to raise her spirits, kindly nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff) convinces Sam to join the residents on a day trip to New York City with the promise of a stop by her favourite childhood Harlem pizza place.

Accompanied by her beloved service cat Frodo, Sam and the group arrive in the city just as meteor-like objects begin falling from the sky. With them comes a wave of aggressive extraterrestrial creatures who begin slaughtering every human in sight. After surviving the chaos and taking shelter inside the theatre, Sam decides to ignore the army’s announcement to head to an evacuation point in the city’s south and instead journey to Harlem to find pizza as her last meal. It’s on this trek Sam stumbles upon Eric (Quinn), a British law student who refuses her suggestion to head south and insists on joining her quest for one final slice of pizza.

If you’ve seen Sarnoski’s previous work, you know he’s a filmmaker who can build an emotional core that will hit you right in the feels. For the third film in a franchise about vicious blind aliens invading Earth to be this staggeringly poignant is a massive surprise. This film has no business leaving me in a puddle of tears, but that’s entirely the reaction it provoked. The decision to centre a sci-fi apocalypse film on a woman in the final stages of terminal cancer is astute storytelling. Sure, it may sound silly to hear her last quest is to locate a piece of pizza. Yet Sarnoski’s writing is so eloquent that it becomes unexpectedly beautiful.

It also helps to have someone as effortlessly talented as Nyong’o in that very role. Sam is a complicated mix of emotions that will elicit both empathy and frustration from an audience. But Nyong’o finds the pathos in this fractured soul so you’re always inherently rooting for her. Sam is a bristly character when she first emerges on screen, but it’s not long before you’ll be falling in love with her. As expected, it’s a mostly silent role, leaving Nyong’o to convey Sam’s emotions (and, of course, terror) through her vividly emotive eyes and facial expressions. It’s some of the best face-acting you’ll ever see.

Rising star Quinn is the perfect substitute for Krasinski as one of the sweetest male protagonists of the year. Loveable is an understatement, but if you’ve seen Quinn’s work in Stranger Things, that should come as no surprise. Eric is constantly faced with opportunities to selfishly abandon Sam and Frodo, yet his quickly formed loyalty never once wavers. Eric’s backstory isn’t quite as developed as Sam’s, which doesn’t offer Quinn as much of a character arc to play with. But he’s equally required to deliver plenty of face acting, which he handles with aplomb. And his chemistry with Nyong’o is sublime.

The real star of the show is Frodo (played by a cat named Schnitzel) who is practically the third lead of the film. If you own a cat, you’re probably thinking it makes zero sense that a cat would remain steadfastly glued to its owner’s side during a chaotic and noisy alien invasion. My cat will freak out and furiously hurry away at the slightest unexpected sound. Sarnoski is wise enough to write Frodo as a service animal who has been trained to remain calm in any situation. That’s not to say he doesn’t get himself into a few sticky situations that require Sam and Eric to risk their lives to save him. But he’s so damn adorable, you can see why they can’t leave him behind.

The marketing of A Quiet Place: Day One could be construed as slightly misleading. Those expecting a bombastic blockbuster that shows New York City falling into total chaos and eventual ruin à la so many other disaster movies could be slightly disappointed. That’s not to suggest there aren’t several terrifyingly thrilling set pieces that show the brutality of these beasts upon an open crowd of hundreds of victims. And the aftermath invariably brings on echoes of 9/11 with images of dazed, injured, and dust-covered New Yorkers stumbling through the streets feeling achingly similar to that dark September day.

It’s just that Sarnoski is more concerned with focusing on the burgeoning connection of two total strangers amidst the carnage and disarray of a city in crisis. Frankly, the film is better for it. The grippingly suspenseful alien encounters are there and they’ll have you holding your breath as often as the previous two films. The conceit of sound being essentially banned from civilisation might be growing a little thin by now, but Sarnoski knows how to utilise it at just the right times. The CGI of the creatures is magnificent, as we get a closer look at these foul beasties when they inevitably stick their faces as close to Sam and Eric as possible. But if you’re expecting scene after scene of alien mayhem, you may walk away feeling a little cheated.

There’s an emotional core to this prequel you may not be expecting. For my money, that more than makes up for anything lacking in the action department, particularly the heart-rending third act. It’s refreshing to see Sarnoski refuse to simply retread everything Krasinski covered in the first two films. A Quiet Place: Day One is a different beast but one just as entertaining, exhilarating, and emotional as what’s followed before. A terrifically crafted mix of terrors, tragedy, beauty, and hope, it will have your chest pounding in fear as much as it tugs at your heartstrings.

Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Joseph Quinn, Alex Wolff, Djimon Hounsou
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, John Krasinksi
Screenplay: Michael Sarnoski
Cinematography: Pat Scola
Production Design: Simon Bowles
Costume Design: Ben Crofton-Atkins

Editors: Gregory Plotkin, Andrew Mondshein
Music: Alexis Grapsas

Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Date: 27th June 2024 (Australia)

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