We begin at the beginning: It’s a lovely, late spring day in Smalltown USA. A tall, lanky man — let’s call him Lee Abbott — gets out of his truck and ducks into a small general store on Main Street. He walks through the aisles, past a shelf full of toy space shuttles, and grabs some bottles of water and snacks. The owner argues with a customer as Lee nods and whizzes out the door. In the background, news reports mention unusual phenomena happening in various cities.
At a Little League game already in full swing (sorry), Lee’s school-age son Marcus is warming up in the dugout. The rest of the Abbotts, including Lee’s wife Evelyn, his hearing-impaired daughter Regan and the youngest, Beau, are enjoying the game. Lee trades a few words with the man sitting behind him, the kind of guy who rolls his sleeves up past his biceps sans irony. His son is playing as well. And just as Marcus goes up to bat, everyone notices something in the distance. Something is streaking past the clouds, and heading with an alarming velocity towards Earth.
You should soak in the prologue that kicks off A Quiet Place: Part II, John Krasinski’s follow-up to his out-of-nowhere 2018 hit — it’s a brilliant watch-the-skies movie in miniature, filled with lack-of-sound and fury, and it distills everything that made the original so unique and exhilarating into a single set piece. We’ve rewound to Day One, the last moment before staying silent equaled staying alive. The bewildered crowd has no sooner gathered on Main Street then those aliens, the ones that answer the eternal question “what would it look like if a daddy-long-legs spider mated with Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors,” make their presence known. Havoc ensues.
Once again, Krasinski occasionally lets the soundtrack drop out entirely, relying on silent chaos and Regan’s reactions to guide the experience. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’re familiar with the POV shot of an oncoming bus on a collision course with the Abbotts’ car, as one spindly arm reaches out of a cracked windshield. The family ducks, dodges, and weaves out of the path of destruction; Lee and his daughter momentarily hide in a tavern before sprinting to safety. Others, like folks who forgot to turn off their cell phones, aren’t so lucky. Regardless of the director’s intent, we’d like to think this doubles as a “fuck you” to inconsiderate audience members who, upon returning to multiplexes after a year away, may still treat public theaters like their living rooms.
Speaking of which: It’s this early, standalone mash-up of Norman Rockwell’s Americana and straight-outta-Heinlein cosmic carnage that reminds you why we’ve been so anxious to return to those shared spaces in the dark. Like a countless other films big and small, A Quiet Place: Part II was set to be released last year before a real-life nightmare overtook the fictional ones we consider escapism. An opening salvo of everyday life interrupted by an out-of-nowhere threat, which then escalates quickly into emergency measures and confusion, plays slightly differently near the midpoint of 2021. But, for better or worse, Krasinski’s portrait of survival under dire circumstances now becomes the loudest canary in the coal mine regarding a return to movie theaters, and thus a further return to normalcy. Part II‘s kickoff gives you thrills-spills-chills mayhem that would play well in any space. See it in a room with dozens of people shrieking, and the sequence is a concentrated dose of joyful delirium.
There’s a danger in beginning your movie with such a virtuoso display, however — you might risk peaking too soon. (Just ask Zack Snyder.) After the rush of this flashback, we’re whisked back to the present, a.k.a. minutes after the first movie’s climax. Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Regan (Millicent Simmonds — once again the stand-out here), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and their newborn brother are preparing to leave their farmhouse in search of fellow survivors and sanctuary; a map is dotted with the locations of potential safe spaces. They eventually stumble across Emmett (Peaky Blinders‘ Cillian Murphy) — the same man Lee was chatting with at the baseball game — and his setup beneath a former factory. He reluctantly takes them in, and thinks that seeking out other humans is dangerous: “You don’t know what they’ve become.” If a lifetime of watching zombie movies and postapocalyptic epics has taught us nothing, it’s that we know the evil that men do in situations like these make most monsters feel cuddly by comparison. The haggard gent has a point.
Still, Regan persists. The family has stumbled upon a transmission, broadcasting an endless loop of Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea.” She senses a clue in the title: Look for an island, and there’s your Eden. Evelyn wants to stay put, collect their bearings and let an injured Marcus heal. Her daughter takes off in the dead of night, against Mom’s wishes. Emmett goes after her, initially to bring her back. But there may be something to this young woman’s idea that, somewhere out there, a brighter tomorrow is but a boat ride away.
From here, Krasinski and his below-the-line dream team — shoutouts galore to composer Marco Beltrami, cinematographer Polly Morgan and (especially) editor Michael P. Shawver, as well as the CGI-creature crew — toggle between several planes of action. Regan and Emmett on the road. Evelyn on a supply run. Marcus and the baby back home, evading creepy-crawly predators. Some nail-biting business involving oxygen tanks, gasoline, a dock, a radio station and a mill’s furnace, which has been converted to temporary panic room, all come into play. Nothing tops that opening sequence, naturally, and you get the sense that Krasinski & Co. aren’t trying to. He’s gone on record as saying that horror was always a means to an end for him, though he certainly knows how to sustain tension and use the frame wisely in the name of scares. The former Office star was more interested in audiences rooting for this family. His chips are on you caring enough about the Abbotts to follow them anywhere.
And yet, after that go-for-broke preamble, it’s hard not to feel like A Quiet Place: Part II is all dressed up and, even with its various inter-game missions and boss-level fights, left with nowhere really to go. If the first film doubled as a parenting parable, this second one concerns the pains of letting someone leave the nest, yet even that concept feels curiously unexplored here. Ditto the idea that, when it comes to the social contract under duress, you will see the best of humanity and, most assuredly, the worst — a notion that not even Krasinski, who made Part 1 in the middle of the Trump era, could have guessed would resonate far more more loudly now. (What a difference a year, and a global pandemic followed by an political insurrection, makes.) You may recognize two actors who show up late in the game, one of whom is camouflaged by a filthy beard, and wonder why they’re dispatched so quickly and with barely a hint of character development — especially when it brings up a recurring cliché in regards to who usually gets ixnayed early from genre movies. Unless, of course, it’s a feint and they’re merely waiting in the wings, ready for more once the next chapter drops. Which brings us to the movie’s biggest crime.
Without giving any specifics away (though if you’re sensitive to even the suggestion of spoilers, bye for now), A Quiet Place: Part II ends on a cliffhanger. A third film, written and directed by Midnight Special‘s Jeff Nichols, is in the works. And while many follow-ups to blockbusters serve as bridges between a beginning and an ending — some of which end up being superior to everything before/after it — there’s something particularly galling about the way this simply, abruptly stops dead in its tracks. No amount of clever formalism or sheer glee at being back in a movie theater can enliven a narrative stalled in second gear, and no amount of investment in these family members can keep you from feeling like you’ve just sat through a placeholder, a time-killer.
A Quiet Place was a riff on alien invasion movies with chops and a heart, a lovely self-contained genre piece that struck a chord. Part II feels like just another case of sequel-itis, something designed to metastasize into just another franchise among many. Just get through this, it says, and then tune in next year, next summer, next financial quarter statement or board-meeting announcement, for the real story. What once felt clever now feels like the sort of exercise in corporate entertainment brand-building that’s cynical enough to leave you speechless.