A Quiet Place: Day One lives up to the first movie by doing something radically different

Sam (Lupita Nyong’o) sits fearfully in a dark space, covered with dust, her cat Frodo in her lap, in Michael Sarnoski’s A Quiet Place: Day One
Photo: Gareth Gatrell/Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

Pig director Michael Sarnoski finds a real purpose for a prequel: exploring uncharted emotional territory

A Quiet Place: Day One isn’t so much a spinoff and prequel of John Krasinski’s 2018 horror movie as it is a riveting drama that plays in the series’ sandbox. You can spot the odd bit of new world-building here or there, about just how and why there are so many damn echolocating aliens, but these tidbits are just background noise (shh, not so loud!) to a much more interesting human story. A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place Part II are rural sci-fi horror, but Day One — from Pig director Michael Sarnoski — moves the setting to New York City and crafts its story in the vein of large-scale disaster cinema. It’s likely the best Manhattan mayhem film since Cloverfield, and it’s also a downright excellent Hollywood blockbuster, if an entirely unexpected one.

A first-time indie filmmaker being subsumed by the studio system can be cause for concern — it’s usually a sign they’ve been hired to execute a board room’s vision — but A Quiet Place: Day One has Sarnoski written all over it, as a genre filmmaker who finds emotional resonance where most might not think to look. Pig, which initially seemed like “John Wick, but with a chef and his beloved sow,” proved surprisingly thoughtful in its unraveling of grief, a sleight-of-hand gambit that applies to Sarnoski’s horror threequel, too. Day One is as much about confronting oblivion as it is about confronting aliens, for reasons the movie’s seemingly omnipresent trailers have avoided revealing.

When Day One opens, its lead character, the former poet Sam (Lupita Nyong’o), is wasting away in a hospice facility, frustrated by her terminal cancer diagnosis, and searching for any reason to lash out. She has just weeks to live, if that, which makes her an especially intriguing centerpiece in a film like this one. Whether she survives the movie is barely relevant, compared to how the experience of living through the end of the world as we know it will change her. The plot’s possibilities are finite, but the film’s emotional possibilities are endless, even within the series’ sci-fi confines.

The beats of the previous Quiet Place movies are present, but simplified: giant, insect-like monsters viciously kill anyone who makes noise. Everyone who doesn’t die in the first wave figures this out quickly, without burdening the audience with a guessing game where we already know the answers. But the movie is set so far in the series’ past — several years before the Quiet Place characters find the aliens’ weakness — that there’s practically no hope for a solution, or for humanity to fight back. At no point are these extraterrestrials framed like slasher-movie serial killers, with creeping one-on-one encounters the humans might possibly win. They function more like a force of nature, an inevitable doom sweeping through the streets of Manhattan, akin to an unrelenting hurricane attracted to noise.

Not only is New York the worst possible place to be when this specific apocalypse hits — the movie’s opening text claims the city’s average noise pollution is 90 decibels, the same as a human scream — but it’s a particularly thorny place to set a disaster movie in general. Like Cloverfield, though, A Quiet Place: Day One doesn’t shy away from the specter of 9/11, and the indelible news footage that came out of it. When the city becomes ground zero for the invasion, Sarnoski immediately envelops the characters in a disorienting cloud of dust.

Three survivors of an alien invasion (Djimon Hounsou, Lupita Nyong’o, Alex Wolff) stand together in the dark, shining a flashlight toward the camera, in Michael Sarnoski’s A Quiet Place: Day One
Photo: Gareth Gatrell/Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

The film, it turns out, is as much about New York as it is about the characters and the series’ central gimmick. Sarnoski treats the city’s neighborhoods and architecture as a distinct terrain. (Though he takes liberties when it comes to subway station design — New Yorkers will have a lot to say about those.) By the end, the film isn’t just about New York’s history; in subtle ways, it’s about people’s personal relationship to a changing urban landscape and the memories it holds. Some spaces, in Day One, are just spaces; they’re dull and functional. But some, which hold specific meaning, are presented with an ethereal glow.

The spectacle of vehicles being tossed helter-skelter and familiar landmarks being damaged beyond repair is a key part of any disaster film’s allure. Sarnoski imbues these traditional visual cues with immense emotional weight, though, by focusing on how people would realistically react to experiencing them. This trajectory seems strangely idiosyncratic at first. When Sam visits the city with her cat, Frodo (a cute reference — they’re an inseparable pair), on a bus full of fellow patients chaperoned by kindly nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff), she’s intent on eating her favorite slice of New York pizza. This also remains her objective even when everything goes to hell.

That may seem like a joke about New Yorkers’ claims of culinary superiority, but the film is on Sam’s wavelength. Her arduous journey from downtown Manhattan to a specific Harlem pizza place is quickly established as an emotionally rooted fixation, a response to the immense trauma she’s facing. If she’s going to die, she wants to do it on her own terms, even if that means charging headfirst toward certain death for a small but familiar comfort.

A man in a suit (Joseph Quinn), caught in the alien invasion of New York City, stands waist-deep in water, soaked and clinging to a pole outside of a subway station, in Michael Sarnoski’s A Quiet Place: Day One
Photo: Gareth Gatrell/Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

On her way uptown, she runs into an English law student, Eric (Joseph Quinn), who, rather than evacuating, decides to follow her for a reason that seems equally ridiculous. He winds up as the film’s emotional backbone. Sam’s diagnosis had already turned her world upside down: The alien invasion reads like an external manifestation of her spiritual chaos. Eric’s life, by contrast, was on a straightforward path, but the experience of nearly dying on day one shakes him to his core.

Survival instinct as a broad concept is a decent enough character motive for a disaster movie, but Sarnoski anchors this idea in simple but powerfully relatable stimuli. In Sam’s case, it’s the specificity of memory. (The pizza place has a deeper significance than is immediately apparent.) For Eric, it’s the simple act of connecting not with Sam, but with Frodo. Under the circumstances, either of these motives is reason enough to push forward, in spite of the emerging complications.

As usual for Quiet Place movies, the action is built around moments where the characters want to escape, which clashes with the need to stay absolutely silent. Few theatrical experiences beat the tense realization of Quiet Place sequences where someone inadvertently makes a noise. But the way Day One frames the human voice is a powerful masterstroke. Between Sam’s intense pain as she runs out of medication and Eric’s intense trauma from recent events, the characters don’t just have to avoid making sounds while moving. They instead have to suppress their natures, their primal need to scream as their lives crumble around them.

Sam (Lupita Nyong’o), sitting in a big leather easy chair in a dim room, closes her eyes and screams in Michael Sarnoski’s A Quiet Place: Day One
Photo: Gareth Gatrell/Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

The movie’s tension remains razor-sharp for lengthy periods, but this is also broken up by sweet moments of release as the characters find isolated ways to interact. Quinn, with his limited dialogue and numerous silent scenes, exudes a sweet, sympathetic vulnerability that takes him to difficult places as a performer. Nyong’o, though she punctuates Sam with moments of abject terror, maintains a stern resolve, which comes with some deeply moving layers.

While there’s no hint of traditional Hollywood romance between Eric and Sam, A Quiet Place: Day One is deeply romantic in its depiction of two frightened souls caring for each other, with emotional and physical intimacy born from sheer instinct, as the world tips past a precipice we know it won’t return from. In the process, Sarnoski and his leads turn what could have easily been facile personal pursuits into the most important thing either character will ever do.

A Quiet Place: Day One is in theaters now.

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