Serving as both prologue and epilogue to the original film, flashing back to the day the sound-averse killer aliens landed on Earth, A Quiet Place Part II is an exercise in diminishing returns. As our Tim Grierson pointed out in his review of the first high-concept movie, “the risk with such films is that, eventually, we’ll grow accustomed to the conceit and get restless.” As the sequel’s already been delayed a full year since its planned release date, that restlessness has perhaps already set in on a larger cultural level. Even if much of A Quiet Place’s power didn’t come from its relatively restrained worldbuilding and potent use of its near-silent sensory gimmick, that’s a long time for its simple hook to live out in the pop cultural world. But thanks to the strengths of its core ensemble and returning director John Krasinski’s ability behind the camera, A Quiet Place Part II’s technical merits mostly drown out the franchise’s increasingly noisy flaws.
Picking up directly after the first film, the surviving Abbott family—Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Marcus (Noah Jupe), Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and a nameless newborn—mourn the sacrifice of patriarch Lee (Krasinski) by abandoning their somewhat busted, partially ablaze post-apocalyptic compound in search of a mysterious bonfire they spot on the horizon. They’ve gotten pretty good at dealing with these monsters thanks to the discovery that they hate the frequency produced by Regan’s cochlear implant—though with that baby in tow and their home apparently no longer inhabitable (for some reason), the family’s clearly in need of a more permanent solution.
This necessarily questions and attempts to expand that aforementioned contained stage-setting. How can this weakness be exploited on a larger scale, and how did the world beyond the Abbott home cope? These threads unfurl somewhat arbitrarily as the world grows bigger and monsters that were once teased crash about the screen with violent abandon. We see a bit more of the nasty, Last of Us production design; Venom-like aliens that ostensibly hate noise scream their fleshy, exploded-pie-chart-looking heads off. In many ways, Part II suffers from some of the same follow-up problems afflicting The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Additionally, when that magic reveal is spent up, cynicism naturally follows. Emmett (Cillian Murphy), the family friend from the Before Times waiting at that bonfire who’s suffered more and retained less than the Abbotts, embodies this messy sourness.
Since Krasinski doesn’t seem very interested in exploring the ideas brought up by colliding his parties, he could have benefited from once again having the purity of structure set up by A Quiet Place co-writers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck—and that’s not even considering the film’s exceptionally fun selection of “how does that work” nitpick bait. But despite his screenwriting shortcomings, Krasinski still proves himself a capable horror director.
Not only are the film’s actors so good that they sell ridiculous ideas or freshen familiar situations—Simmonds is still a standout, at once the most expressive and grounded of the group, while Murphy shifts with a dying animal’s dangerous melancholy—Krasinski understands how to play to their physicality, keeping a tight focus on small actions and their potentially large consequences. Yes, people are once again taking very slow footsteps. But when he’s telling stories through these silent, zeroed-in processes, climbing through a window can be far more compelling than an alien barreling through a train car. Regan reaching over to turn the ASL-illiterate Emmett’s head so that his lips are easier for her to read is a small gesture, but one captured with enough focus and gravity that its implied closeness helps overcome their underwritten relationship.
These sequences are the intimate, often breath-holding culminations of Krasinski’s audiovisual talents, which are showcased in the flashback scene in which he appears. Fittingly, it’s also the best scene in the movie. Krasinski and cinematographer Polly Morgan know how to shoot the apocalypse. When to do a long tracking shot, how to direct our eyes across the screen through the deployment and interruption of negative space—a rare rack focus here, a daringly staged car sequence there. Stark sound editing amplifies thrilling, contrast-heavy cuts. Without much incidental music, sound effects continue to do the heavy lifting. It’s not that things are mixed in an over-the-top way, but there’s often so little aural noise that they’re allowed to breathe and stand out. It all works, planting ideas to be called back to and shocking our system. If that day was a fiery circle of hell, present day is its frigid depth.
These techniques and their deft deployment pop up throughout the film, just like Emmett. The old world, the film seems to say, isn’t completely lost. It’s just got a different role now. If its predecessor’s fast-and-loose metaphor was about the fears of parenthood, Part II contemplates the next generation learning to fend for themselves, bringing the scraps of their parents’ world into a new future. Rallying around Regan, Marcus and even that little baby (the most silly and depressing aspect of the narrative, an exceptionally accommodating newborn who spends most of his life stuffed into a padded picnic basket) grants the film’s adult characters optimism in a world where pessimism is on the rise. Thankfully, though it does briefly dabble with some silly faction-happy Walking Dead-like shenanigans, the movie never totally veers in this direction. While it looks towards a larger world, its family is still its focus.
That leaves A Quiet Place Part II to be a charmingly unambitious, ultimately enjoyable step down of a sequel: A controlled expansion where novelty fades to reveal technical prowess and contempt starts peeking out behind familiarity. Krasinski’s milked this franchise and its gimmicks to provide us with his two best showings behind the camera, but he—like its characters—needs to grow beyond it, or else be trapped as its returns finally disappear entirely.
Directors: John Krasinski
Writers: John Krasinski
Stars: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Djimon Hounsou, John Krasinski
Release Date: May 28, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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