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A Quiet Place: Day One Emphasises Character to Compose a Winning Formula

In an era replete with sequels, prequels, and requels, Director Michael Sarnoski demonstrates how to raise the bar above mere bloat.

Directed by Michael Sarnoski

by Prabhjot Bains

Whenever a Hollywood franchise enters its “prequel phase” there’s usually a sharp decline in quality, ushering in an eventual fatigue with its forced and soulless continuation. That’s not a revelatory statement, but it’s one that Michael Sarnoski’s A Quiet Place: Day One actively challenges. While not without its clear foibles, the prequel justifies its existence as something other than a bankable follow-up, giving us some of the most moving moments of the series. It’s Sarnoski’s investment in character that allows Day One to validate a glimpse into how the series’ inventive doomsday scenario began.

The original film’s central conceit (or gimmick, as it verges on becoming a tad repetitive) allowed its director John Krasinski to weaponize both sound and silence to craft a monster flick—in the vein of Jaws or Alien—with clever worldbuilding potential. Its sequel further explored a post-apocalyptic world, where vicious killer aliens with supersonic hearing plunge humanity into a virtually silent existence, or risk being easy prey. Day One takes us back to ground zero, peeking at life in New York City just before and after the world ended.

The screenplay, written by Sarnoski, centres on poet Samira (Lupita Nyong’o), whose life in hospice as a terminal cancer patient threatens to consume her. While on a trip to the city, the alien blitzkrieg commences, and she’s forced to navigate the detritus surrounding her. However, Samira doesn’t find herself alone, evading the predatory aliens with her cat Frodo and jittery tagalong Eric (Joesph Quinn), who isn’t used to staring down death quite like her.

Where Krasinski employed silence to ratchet up the tension in the first two films, Sarnoski also uses it to give his characters the space to grow and sit with their anxiety, pain, and sadness. Echoing his previous effort, Pig (2021), Sarnoski imbues Day One with a palpable tenderness, using negative space and deafening silence to bring us closer to each character’s frayed headspace. It’s especially moving in a scene where the duo let it all out with a scream perfectly timed to thunder.

Like many other Hollywood blockbusters, Day One employs the loss and memory of a loved one to reinforce its emotional core. Yet, in framing it around an ill protagonist who is already preparing for their eventual demise, Sarnoski poses questions that rarely grace such films. At each turn Day One has us reckoning with what gives an already-doomed person the will to live in a life-or-death situation. When asked what she’s going to do next after surviving a perilous encounter with the aliens, Sam replies “I’m going to get pizza.” It lends the film a sombre, stirring edge that its predecessors and most aspiring blockbusters lack.

Nyong’o’s angulated performance allows Day One to dig beneath the surface of these questions. With sparse dialogue, her animated face delivers the nuance required to make each moment of quiet compassion and brash spectacle reverberate long after their conclusion. Along with Quin’s anxious, beleaguered turn, the two foster arcs as warm as they are moving.

Yet, for as strong as its emotional core is, Day One falls prey to some typical blockbuster symptoms. The film is especially rife with unnecessary and mawkish musical stings that defeat the purpose of its crafty conceit. It’s an unfortunate effect that’s compounded by a few lazy jump scares. Day One also isn’t free of plot inconsistencies and conveniences, namely in the form of Samira’s adorable feline, who never lets out the odd meow when the group is hiding from aliens. A case of “prequelitis” also rears its head, with a shoehorned appearance from Djimon Hounsou’s character from A Quiet Place Part II.

Despite these shortcomings, A Quiet Place: Day One understands that an action sequence is only as memorable as the characters experiencing it. It’s the rare prequel that defends its existence with earned emotion, offering us something to explore in between its moments of dread and suspense. It’s not only better than it has any right to be but reaches some heights its predecessors didn’t even attempt to summit.

A Quiet Place: Day One is in theatres on June 28.