A Quiet Place: Day One


There are enough interesting ideas and at least two confident performances holding “A Quiet Place: Day One” together, even if it sometimes feels like a first draft of a richer, more complex final film. “Pig” director Michael Sarnoski proves deft at the kind of melancholic, subtle character beats usually lacking in these blockbusters. But he lacks the skill set for action, an essential aspect of a film like this: the setpieces feel too imprecise, and the stakes never high enough to produce actual tension. Still, what could have been a cash grab clearly has loftier aspirations, resulting in a film that’s never boring and just provocative enough to spark big questions about what truly matters in this world when it’s falling apart.

The always-great Lupita Nyong’o plays Sam, a hospice stage cancer patient who agrees to a trip into Manhattan for a show with her support group, led by a bearded Alex Wolff (who also starred in “Pig”). The puppet show they attend is fine, but she’s really there for a slice of NY pizza, knowing that it’s likely the last time she will have a chance to taste something she so clearly associates with happiness. Making Sam an end-stage cancer patient adds an interesting layer to the horror that unfolds. How hard do you fight to live when you’re already dying? It’s only one of several intriguing ideas that Sarnoski’s film walks up to but then runs away too quickly, retreating into the thin structure of a survival thriller.

Another big question is, how do you silence one of the loudest cities in the world? Sarnoski’s film informs us that NYC is regularly 90 decibels, setting the stage for a movie about how a city filled with that much hustle and bustle stays quiet. But this isn’t that movie. We never get the sense we’re in a crowded city on the first day of the end of the world, as Sarnoski can’t hide that his film didn’t shoot in Manhattan (it was shot on London soundstages). This makes it feel more like sets than a lived-in reality.

We follow Sam and her movie-stealing cat, Frodo, through this landscape until they’re joined by a panicking young man named Eric (Joseph Quinn of “Stranger Things”). Casting Nyong’o and Quinn proves half the battle with “Day One,” as their extremely expressive faces are forced to do a lot of heavy lifting as the sound-sensitive aliens take over the world around them. They both give strong genre performances, conveying most of the story through pure physicality and expression.

The problem is there’s too little story to tell. Early on, we meet Henri (Djimon Hounsou), a character from “A Quiet Place: Part II”; he gets one of the best scenes in the movie as a man goes into a panic attack in front of him and his son. What would you do? How far would you go to silence a man who might put your family in jeopardy? Would you kill him? It’s a beat that gets a nice callback later when Eric’s panic starts to rise, and we wonder if Sam may have to ask the same questions, but it feels too shallowly developed. Almost every thematic aspect of “Day One” feels hurried, a pace that could be why the once-attached Jeff Nichols left the project over creative differences. It’s hard to believe in the era of bloated blockbusters, but this one should have been longer; its 99 minutes don’t allow for enough character investment, world-building, or actual tension.

Yet Sarnoski’s obvious gift for nuance comes through in a few beats. He directs Nyong’o and Quinn to very solid performances with almost no dialogue, but one wishes he could have found a co-director who could give “Day One” a bit more visual style and substance. When the aliens are doing their thing, “Day One” falls into a gap between realism and action, never feeling genuinely tense but never quite like a big-budget blockbuster. The minor beats in “Day One” – kids hiding in a fountain to disguise their noise, Eric emerging from a flooded subway, a hand over a screaming mouth, Quinn & Nyong’o’s amazing eyes – elevate it above creatively bankrupt sequels. This is not that. It’s got too much going for it to write it off that cynically. Just don’t expect anyone to defend it too loudly, either.

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