A Quiet Place was perhaps the pinnacle of the sensory deprivation horror of the late 2010s – the last of a plethora of films that tried to reinvest the multiplex with a new sensory immediacy by focusing on characters who had one or many senses disabled. That movement didn’t necessarily feel exhausted by A Quiet Place, but John Krasinski’s film was the last big sensory deprivation release before the COVID-19 pandemic, which changed multiplex experience and attendance yet again. In fact, A Quiet Place Part II was meant to come out in late 2019, but the pandemic pushed it forward, over and over again, until it became as inextricable from COVID-19 as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. Yet where Tenet was the defining peri-pandemic film, inviting audiences to risk exposure to view it in theatres, A Quiet Place Part II has become the defining post-pandemic film – the first step in restoring multiplex life.
In part, that’s because this sequel takes on a new and uncanny intensity in the wake of the pandemic. Without knowing the production history, you could easily mistake it for a film made during the pandemic, or even after the pandemic, so acutely does its premise speak to the concerns of the last two years. In a brief prologue, Krasinski takes us back to Day 1 of the alien invasion that sets the franchise in motion, which eerily replicates the early days of the pandemic as well. While spending time in town with his children, Lee Abbott (Krasinski) notices a news broadcast in the general store about an apparent terrorist attack in China. He doesn’t think much of it, unaware of how quickly this Chinese event will infect the textures of his everyday life – that very day, as it turns out, since the aliens arrive only a few hours later.
From there, we shift to Day 474 – the film came out around Day 474 of the pandemic – as the silence of the world now reflects the silence of lockdown. These scenes also feel shot during the pandemic, since the narrative is so socially distanced – there are only a few people in every scene, and we’re always acutely aware of the spaces between them. One of the biggest risks comes when a character reaches gingerly for a Johnson and Johnson first aid kid in a wrecked train. This moment sits eerily alongside the risk calculus of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine – arguably the most divisive vaccine in America at the time that the film was released.
What ensues plays more like an expansion pack for a game than a traditional sequel, as Krasinski takes the tropes of the first film and applies them to a broader range of landscapes and scenarios. The original film ended with Lee dead, and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and children Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) besieged in their barn. They now escape, and make their way to a neighbouring factory, where they discover Emmett, an old friend, played by Cillian Murphy. While Regan and Emmett set out to discover more survivors, Evelyn and Marcus shelter in the factory, along with Evelyn and Lee’s newborn son.
The film now effectively unfolds as two films, each focusing on a pair of characters. Regan and Emmett’s story is the most compelling, since it expands the world of the series, and provides more scope for the incredible tactility of moving through a quiet world – walking a tightrope of silence – that was so powerful in the original film. We see the same cyberpunk take on the Rust Belt that populates many dystopian games, as Evelyn and Marcus take refuse in the abandoned factory and Regan and Emmett make their way down an overgrown train line, where they’re confronted with one sublime spectacle of industrial desuetude after another.
In the process, A Quiet Place Part II becomes an object lesson in how to converge the languages of gaming and cinema for a renewed multiplex experience. You might say that Krasinski imagines a game and then adapts it, getting the best of both worlds. There’s the same 360-degree sensory immersion as a game – this is what the Resident Evil films were aiming for – but an equally precise and visceral sense of mise-en-scene that engages the entire body. Paired with the cavernous space and collective attention of a multiplex audience, this approach prefigures the future of VR horror, offering us a virtual experience but without the virtual infrastructure that will presumably supplement the multiplex in the coming years.
This makes A Quiet Place Part II considerably more suspenseful than the original, especially once Krasinski divides it into separate stories. As the characters pair off, their main aim is to network with other characters, and the camera paves the way for them, embodying their aspirations through dextrous cross-editing. The first film ended with dramatic intercutting, which Krasinski has turned into the driving artistic principle here, as we continually move between different scenes, perspectives and trajectories. The characters remain separate and silent for most of the action, even as they grow closer to one another, as Krasinski imagines what it would take to restore the networks that currently sustain us if they were as decimated as they are here.
It all ends with a radio signal that unifies the characters into a single network, and paves the way for a further expansion of the franchise in a third film, which will presumably take place in an urban environment, now that we have moved from the Abbott household, in the first film, to this more regional focus in the second film. In that sense, Krasinski has provided a good corrective to the first film, which was quite awkwardly structured in its later stages. Instead of providing us with an expansive third act, the original doubled down on Krasinski’s hubris as father-director, turning the entire alien invasion into a canvas for his paternal hubris.
That hubris is still there, to some extent, in A Quiet Place Part II. The prologue makes it clear that Lee (and Krasinski) is still the protagonist of the franchise, even or especially in his death. His daughter, Regan, continually invokes him, becomes a conduit for him, and loses her temper with Emmett simply for not being him. It’s the same narcissistic father-daughter relationship that drives Interstellar, as Lee, like McConaughey’s character, relishes apocalypse as a way of cementing himself as a hero in his daughter’s eyes (his son gets pretty short shrift by comparison). In fact, Regan invokes Lee so much that he becomes a kind of deified figure, just as he puts his hand over a publican’s mouth to prevent him reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the prelude, thereby taking the burden of paternal protection purely upon his own shoulders.
In other words, the franchise is something of a vanity project for Krasinski – a way of flexing his status as both father and director with his actual wife playing his fictional wife. Still, that hubris is less pronounced in the sequel – a promising sign for the third film, and for the franchise as a whole, which deserves to be about more than Krasinski’s directorial self-regard. Like a game, it feels capable of infinite iterations and reinventions, so hopefully it will continue beyond a trilogy to become the serial text that the multiplex needs to get back upon its feet.