DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. As movie theaters reopen nationwide, the horror film "A Quiet Place Part II" already has become one of the summer's early box-office hits. It's a sequel to John Krasinski's 2018 film "A Quiet Place," in which Krasinski and Emily Blunt played survivors of a deadly alien apocalypse. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: In the sensational 2018 thriller "A Quiet Place," humanity has been ravaged by hideous alien predators with extraordinary powers of hearing. The story follows the Abbotts, a family of survivors who must stay quiet at all times, unable to talk or sneeze or step on a creaky floorboard, or they'll likely be dead. It was a killer word-of-mouth hook. Here was a movie you had to watch in a theater in your own state of silence, with no slurping or popcorn crunching allowed. "A Quiet Place" became a huge success, and its filmmaker and star, John Krasinski, wrote and directed a sequel that was supposed to open last March. But then the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters to close, and the movie's release was postponed.
Now, more than a year later, theaters have reopened, and "A Quiet Place Part II" is drawing large audiences. Is it too soon to go back to theaters, with the pandemic not yet fully subsided? I wondered as much when I watched the film at a recent media screening, I felt pretty safe. I was wearing a mask in a nearly empty theater and had been fully vaccinated weeks earlier. But I also felt privileged to be seeing a film on a big screen, with strict precautions in place.
Whether you go to see it now or wait until it begins streaming, "A Quiet Place Part II" is likely to make you a little jumpy. It doesn't have the same claustrophobic intensity as its predecessor, but it's just as taut, suspenseful and beautifully made. As before, Krasinski doesn't explain why the aliens are here in the first place, but he does give us an opening flashback to the terrible day they arrived, laying waste to the Abbotts' small town in upstate New York and other towns and cities all over the globe. Many people die, but the Abbotts survive, mainly because they're quick to realize that the monsters hunt by sound.
Then the movie flashes forward many months, picking up right after the events of the first film. Krasinski's character, Lee Abbott, has been tragically killed, leaving behind his wife, Evelyn - played by a fierce Emily Blunt - and their three children. Krasinski and Blunt are married in real life. The family is shaken but resilient. They finally discover the aliens' fatal weakness, and they're curious about making contact with other survivors. And so they set out from their farmhouse and make their way across an overgrown, postapocalyptic landscape where danger lurks around every corner.
In this nearly wordless scene, which conveys the movie's layered sound design, Evelyn accidentally triggers a booby trap, causing a loud clatter.
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EMILY BLUNT: (As Evelyn Abbott, breathing heavily) Run.
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CHANG: The fact that the characters can't speak out loud is one reason the "Quiet Place" movies are so effective. Not being able to fall back on verbal exposition has forced Krasinski to become a ruthlessly efficient visual storyteller. It's often said that Alfred Hitchcock's movies are so sharply directed you could turn the sound off and still follow the action, a truth that applies to these movies as well.
It helps that the Abbotts are fluent in American Sign Language since their oldest child, Regan, is deaf, as is the actor who plays her, the remarkable Millicent Simmonds. As in the first film, Regan emerges as the story's truest hero. She's tough, courageous and determined to help as many other people as she can. Less eager to take action is her traumatized younger brother Marcus, heartbreakingly played by Noah Jupe.
Eventually, the Abbotts take temporary shelter in an abandoned steel factory, where they reunite with an old family friend, Emmett, played by a grave Cillian Murphy. Emmett is grieving the loss of his family and has become deeply cynical about humanity, at one point saying, the people that are left, they're not worth saving. Regan disagrees. Not only are people worth saving, she says, but if enough of them joined forces, they might be able to fight back against the aliens.
The movie seems to think they both have a point. As Regan and Emmett embark on a perilous journey in search of survivors, they find themselves in situations that give rise to both hope and despair. Some of the people they meet are as predatory as the monsters; others are as brave and compassionate as Regan. That makes "A Quiet Place Part II" an unexpectedly resonant film for the present moment, as this country slowly emerges from a crisis that, while surely less terrifying than an alien apocalypse, has revealed humanity at its best and its worst.
The movie ends on an inconclusive note, leaving the door open for another sequel, which is both frustrating and heartening. I'm already looking forward to finding out what happens next - hopefully, in a dark theater, watching as quietly as I can.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times.
On Monday's show, actress, singer, dancer Rita Moreno. She's most famous for her role as Anita in the 1961 film adaptation of "West Side Story," a tough nun and prison psychologist in the HBO series "Oz" and, more recently, co-starring in the reboot of the Norman Lear sitcom "One Day At A Time." She's the subject of an upcoming PBS American Masters documentary. Hope you can join us.
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BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Mike Villers. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.