‘A Quiet Place: Day One’ Keeps the Franchise Suspenseful With a Stellar Lupita Nyong’o

Here is a franchise that stays consistent by simply transferring its formula intact to a new setting. “A Quiet Place: Day One” is the first prequel in the “Quiet Place” horror-thriller set of films that began in 2018. As a result, you can walk into it fresh story-wise. What it has in common with its predecessors is both familiar and smart. Instead of over-expanding the narrative, it sticks to the idea of being an exercise in pure tension. The first “A Quiet Place,” written and directed by John Krasinski, grabbed attention by essentially being a silent film. Rehashed alien invaders suddenly seemed more terrifying when all they needed was for you to make a peep. “Day One” introduces us to the tale’s initial apocalypse. It’s sustained by good style and two actors not phoning it in.

New York City is once again ground zero for the end of the world. Terminal cancer patient, Samira (Lupita Nyong’o), would just like to enjoy what time she has left, maybe having a slice of pizza. The head of the support group she’s in (Alex Wolff) offers to bring her along for a marionette show and later some pizza. All hell breaks loose during the performance when sirens blare, fiery streaks fill the skyline and those dreaded alien creatures with the flowery heads attack. The invasion has begun and survivors quickly catch on to the idea that the aliens are driven by a sense of hearing. Suddenly left alone, Samira bumps into Eric (Joseph Quinn), a law student from the UK. Together, they need to trek through what’s left of the city to find safe passage on one of the boats carrying out other survivors. It turns out the invaders don’t go so well with water.

Fans or those with good memories will recall these are events Henri (Djimon Hounsou) shared in scattered detail while running a secluded survivors’ community in “A Quiet Place Part II.” Henri does indeed appear here, but momentarily to link this movie with the others. Directing duties this time go to Michael Sarnoski, in another case of an arthouse auteur switching over to where the real money is. Sarnoski previously made the unique, memorable “Pig,” starring Nicolas Cage as a former chef hunting down the kidnappers of his beloved truffle pig. The strange pathos of that film does make Sarnoski an inspired fit for this franchise, since Krasinski’s idea always tries to add more dramatic heft than just jump scares. The screenplay by Sarnoski, Krasinski and Bryan Woods actually builds convincing characters with believable identities. 

Giving Nyong’o and Quinn good parts makes “Day One” work better than a throwaway popcorn thriller. Sarnoski has fun informing us at the beginning that NYC tends to produce around 90 decibels of noise, which is the equivalent of a nonstop scream. It’s a crafty use of irony, since the rest of the movie is driven by imagining the Big Apple going completely silent. Samira and Eric, along with a lovable cat, traverse the city’s streets, sewers and abandoned buildings while forced to whisper or make sure they don’t scream in terror. The moments of quieter drama are not wasted and we get a real sense of two individuals from different backgrounds, now struggling with horrifying odds. Samira isn’t necessarily a fatalist. She wants the right to indulge in one delight amid this survivalist situation. Eric is a man used to an academic existence, now he has to endure swimming through sewage. Why Samira wants pizza so badly is also given an endearing explanation. Her childhood memories are meant to tug at our heart strings, yet that’s infinitely better than another shallow piece of human bait for the CGI.

The rest of “Day One” is well-made but not truly original. By now, we’re so used to seeing our major cities get trashed or attacked that this, along with movies like “Battle Los Angeles,” will be used for training manuals once the real thing happens. Sarnoski is an elegant director and here stages some good nail-biters like a chase through flooding tunnels or a dash for one of the boats carrying survivors away from the city. We can at least see well what the idea behind the action scene is. Because the film was shot on a London soundstage, New York does look more like a CGI rendering as opposed to the real thing, particularly in wide shots featuring the usual fighter jets bombing famous skylines. Krasinski’s films felt more organic in their woodland settings. 

It also remains to be seen if this franchise will find any other use for its alien antagonists. We still haven’t learned where they come from or why. Because they have the look and personality of cosmic guard dogs, the aliens never do anything other than crawl, roar, screech, scratch, claw and bite. As symbols of pure, lashing threats, the idea worked very well in the original “A Quiet Place.” Now, one wonders how much farther the gimmick lasts unless every new movie takes place somewhere else, in a different town or city, with new characters. The first films were strong allegories for a family unit facing a sudden threat. This one also carries a decent message about the solidarity between strangers. Avoiding being thoughtless, “Day One” is good popcorn fun, designed to raise the heart rate for its thankfully brisk 99 minutes. 

A Quiet Place: Day One” releases June 28 in theaters nationwide.