Joseph Quinn and Lupita Nyong'o in A Quiet Place: Day One


As its title suggests, A Quiet Place: Day One is a prequel to the horror-thriller franchise involving blind-but-assuredly-not-deaf aliens who make life on Earth a living Hell. Theoretically, we're at writer/director Michael Sarnoski's entry to see how humanity – specifically American humanity – responded when initially confronted by the shrieking creatures with enviable climbing and jumping skills, lethal pincers, and a habit of snatching their prey and doing … something … with them at super-sonic speed. It's easy to forget, though, that we already have a Day One in this series. It's A Quiet Place Part II, and it debuted in the spring of 2021 (after a COVID-caused delay from the previous year), and it opened as our heroic Abbott family and their upstate-New-York brethren first came face-to-face with the monsters that would eventually tear their clan, and the world, apart.

What Sarnoski's Day One gives us, then, is a more metropolitan view of events we'd already witnessed elsewhere, and what's perhaps most annoying about the film – and it's practically teeming with annoyances – is that the locale switch does almost nothing to expand our view of this franchise's universe. If anything, it constricts it. (The first Quiet Place, in 2018, gave us four characters to root for; this one gives us two, plus a cat whom others are clearly more enchanted by than I am.) It's not like we were going to get an explanation behind this alien race crash-landing on Earth – apparently via meteors, even though we previously discovered that the space travelers are afraid of fire. Did they arrive intentionally? Accidentally? We'll probably never know, because it's not like we'd get a reply if anyone asked them. Yet given that Day One takes place primarily in Manhattan, and opening titles cards explain how noisy the island is on a second-to-second basis, we're right to expect the change of scenery to inspire something different in the presentation – perhaps a feature-length attempt to get everyone and everything to shut the eff up. (Those title cards reveal that “New York gives off an average of 90 decibels, which is the sound of a constant scream.”) How disappointing, then, to find the Manhattan populace adhering to a silence-is-golden policy within what seems like minutes of the first alien assault, and to find Day One subsequently adhering, essentially, to the same narrative blueprint as before.

With the Abbotts confronting their demons further north, Day One focuses on terminal-cancer patient Sam (Lupita Nyong'o), a published poet now living her remaining days in a hospice facility just outside the Big Apple. Sam is in constant pain and understandably miserable – only her devoted service cat Frodo serves as comfort – and when hospice nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff) suggests that Sam join fellow residents on a trip to Manhattan to catch a show, she does so only with the caveat that they also stop for pizza. The promised entertainment turns out to be a low-rent marionette performance. (And, from the looks of it, a magical one.) But the pizza will have to wait, as everyone is quickly herded back onto the bus because of some newly announced emergency demanding that everyone vacate the city. That's when the meteors/aliens hit.

Lupita Nyong'o in A Quiet Place: Day One

If there's any major reason to catch this latest Quiet Place, though there are a few minor ones, it's Lupita Nyong'o. In outline, her cancer-stricken figure would seem almost cruelly engineered for audience empathy. Sarnoski's script, however, gives the Oscar winner a far more intriguing arc, because Sam is an asshole, and would have no problem calling herself one. (In the group-therapy session that serves as Sam's introduction, she recites an original poem in which the term “shit” is applied to everything from her illness to her surroundings to her caretakers to her fellow cancer patients.) Put bluntly, Sam no longer cares if she lives or dies, and her decision to join that field trip is obviously based solely on enjoying her last taste of NYC pizza – for reasons that will eventually become clear – before she perishes. Funny how the arrival of destructive, murderous aliens will change things.

It's not that Sam necessarily wants to live while in the midst of that first alien attack – a startlingly effective scene boasting deliberate echoes to the financial-district chaos of 9/11 in its smoke, terror, and pandemonium. And although survival instinct is clearly at work, we quickly glean that Sam isn't much interested in getting to safety, either. Loudspeaker announcements tell Manhattanites to head toward awaiting boats in the harbor (because authorities have apparently already recognized the creatures' debilitating fear of water), and while Sam guides a pair of presumably orphaned kids in that direction, she has no interest is escorting them. She's off to get her Harlem pizza on foot, dammit, and Nyong'o's transcendent, intensely soulful portrayal burns with ache and need and determination; Sam has come too far in her life struggle to give up now. She's leaving this world on her own terms, and her ensemble of gold sweater and red, wool cap quickly stops looking like a wardrobe choice. It looks, gloriously, like a suit of armor.

Because she already has Frodo to look after – a tabby who, acting in feline character, tends to run away at the most inconvenient times – the last thing Sam needs is another traveling companion. Yet I couldn't have been more delighted that one arrived in the form of Joseph Quinn, whose British law student Eric proves more of an emotional wreck than Sam ever is. Like Nyong'o, Quinn has a gorgeously expressive face, and while Eric's character exposition basically ends with his family living in Kent, you understand and like this guy from the start. It takes Sam a bit longer to warm to him, although, like us, Frodo digs the Englishman right away. But the pair's growing bond as they trek to Harlem is Day One's richest element – this found family of three, if you include the cat, coming close to evincing the same sense of attachment we got from the team of Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, and Noah Jupe in the first Quiet Place and its continuation. (I found myself totally teary-eyed in the silent-comedy sequence of Eric lightening Sam's mood with a clever card trick.) The series' original creators – and co-proprietors of Davenport's Last Picture House venue – Scott Beck and Bryan Woods seemed to instinctively know that “family first” would be key to their original film's success, and it's the one element of Sarnoski's prequel in which familiarity with the predecessors doesn't lead to lesser returns. As opposed to so many other horror thrillers, we really, really want our heroes to survive in the Quiet Places, and will easily put up with all manner of nonsense to see that happen.

Joseph Quinn in A Quiet Place: Day One

I just wish the nonsense in Day One were less egregious. For the most part, the visual and sound effects are awfully impressive, even if the omnipresent trailers have already given away most of the coolest bits. Setting this tale in downtown New York, though, leads to all sorts of unexpected issues, if not downright idiocies. Manhattan is a province of more than 1.5 million: Why are there no corpses on the streets? Where are the aliens' victims being taken? As the creatures are afraid of water, dumping them in the harbor seems out of the question. But humans also aren't being eaten, because the one addition to franchise lore viewed here finds the fanged monstrosities feasting instead on what looks like the contents of Ridley Scott's Alien eggs – what are those things? Did the beasties bring them along on their meteors for in-flight snacks? It's been a series hiccup before, but why are the invaders now so arbitrary about their rationales for attack, not rampaging over ear-splitting power-supply problems but marauding at first sound of a ripped shirt? Why are they housing themselves in the roofs of flooded subway terminals 10 feet above the water they're so petrified of? How is cancer patient Sam so speedy in her escapes – isn't she in debilitating physical agony throughout? What is Djimon Hounsou even doing here except reminding us that he was in Quiet Place II? Amazingly, the least silly element of Sarnoski's film might be Sam's decision to brave the apocalypse for the promise of a New York slice.

And please don't get me started on the cat. (Or rather, the pair of cats, as the one here is played by identical felines Schnitzel and Nico.) It's apparent why audiences adore Frodo: He's eternally loyal, forever running away but always coming back; he serves as a calming influence on Sam, Eric, and the movie's patrons; he's incredibly camera-ready, and delivers some of the most confident, relaxed, dare I say charismatic feline closeups in recent movies. It's less apparent why reviewers appear to like Frodo so much. Shouldn't he have served at least something akin to the purpose served by Emily Blunt's newborn in the first two Quiet Places – that is, as a living Earthling who inherently doesn't understand that sound is deadly? Frodo, however, never once meows, or hisses, or makes so much as a peep of fright or surprise during the tumult surrounding him, and the one time we do hear him is when he's gently purring into the neck of either Sam or Eric. For years, there have been Alien fan theories suggesting that Ripley's cat Jones was actually in league with the deep-space interloper, casually luring Harry Dean Stanton to his death and nearly causing Sigourney Weaver to miss her escape. (Scott's alien also doesn't harm Jones after greedily eyeballing him in his carrying cage.) Is Frodo the same sort of “nemesis”? Sadly, that supposition is more fascinating than most of the actualities delivered by Day One.

Kevin Costner in Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1


Do you remember 1989's four-part CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove? I sure hope so. Adapted from Larry McMurtry's sprawling novel from four years prior, it's easily one of the Western genre's most colossal achievements: 384 stunningly presented minutes of Old West ambition, brutality, and kindness, tethered by sensationally involving narratives, no end of astounding set pieces, and Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones (along with a dizzying breadth of additional talents) at career peak. It's no insult to writer/producer/director/star Kevin Costner's Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 1 to say that the best we could've hoped from this big-screen epic about the taming of the Civil-War-era West was that it at least matched the first half of director Simon Wincer's achievement from 35 years ago. Costner, after all, knows his way around this arena (and has a couple of Oscars to prove it), and a lot of us have likely been hankering for a big, bold, R-rated epic that would determinedly bring this genre back to the place of cinematic esteem it rightfully belongs.

In this first Horizon chapter, over the reported course of three hours and one minute – I didn't stick through the end credits to clock the time for sure – there isn't one engaging major character to be found, nor a single plotline I feel compelled to return to when Chapter 2 lands on August 16. (Yes … of this year.) Costner's latest is, to put it plainly, flabbergasting, and not in a good way. The questionable auteur has certainly been making the requisite talk-show/print-journalism rounds, explaining how Horizon has been his passion project for more than 35 years, and how studios were always afraid of it, and how he put a sizable amount of personal wealth into the project to ensure its completion. (At least part of its completion, as with Chapter 2 ready to screen, Costner is apparently filming a Chapter 3, and an intended Chapter 4 will be based on audience turnout for the first two.) Yet I weep for Costner and his accountants when I say that this first installment is an unholy mess, so lacking in anything as fundamental as narrative clarity that even the eager seniors at my packed Thursday-afternoon screening appeared to be left dumbfounded.

Because all of Costner's Dances with Wolves and Yellowstone fans seemed determined to see the movie at the same time, there weren't many seats available when I procured my ticket, and I wound up sitting next to that couple you never want to sit next to at the movies: advanced seniors who respond to every arrival, line of dialogue, and plot development with “Who is that?!” and “What's going on?!” My neighboring pair did this for nearly three entire hours, and as annoyed as I was, it would've been far worse had their queries not made all the sense in the world.

Sienna Miller in Horizon: An American Saga - Chapter 1

New characters are routinely introduced without our being given any reason to care about them, and quickly shuffled off in favor of other, equally bland frontier folk. Seemingly important scenarios are momentarily dropped, and then, it turns out, dropped for the remainder of the movie. Costner himself, playing the nominal lead, doesn't show up until an hour into the movie. Playing an apparently significant wagon-train leader, Luke Wilson doesn't show up until even later. The timelines regarding getting from points A to B are astoundingly vague. The chronological lapses are even weirder. In one scene, Costner's horse trader and his prostitute tag-along are making their lonely way through the wild, and the next time we see them, they're safely ensconced in a tented community, and the saintly hooker has just had sex with someone who isn't Costner. In front of a toddler, no less.

As much as I desperately wanted to nap through this 181-minute debacle, the film's jaw-dropping narrative ineptitude and my accidental seat-mates wouldn't let me, and my neighbors wound up eliciting the one vocal response I elicited, as I audibly chuckled when one member of this Statler-and-Waldorf duo loudly declared, “This thing is disjointed!” Truer words were never spoken, because Horizon 1's few moments of grace are routinely dispelled by crushing stupidity. An admirably staged Apache attack leaves Sienna Miller's frontier woman emotionally scarred … until a few scenes later, when the presumably traumatized widow is pinching her cheeks in an attempt to look pretty for the army lieutenant (Sam Worthington, trying out a misapplied Bronx accent) she has a crush on. Costner makes an appropriately heroic, back-lit entrance … and immediately embarrasses his standing as the film's creator by having the aforementioned, four-decades-his-junior whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Marigold (Abbey Lee) hit on the guy 'til he finally, courteously agrees to sleep with her. Occasional check-ins with the Indigenous people that Costner has championed for nearly 35 years show them (in the screenplay co-credited to Jon Baird) to be noble and principled and just … and you can't fathom why the director keeps them off-screen so often in favor of dopey comedy involving a pair of wagon-train-riding British twits and Michael Rooker attempting an Irish brogue.

As a director, Costner isn't without skill – though maybe not as much as the voting bloc of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, in 1991, notoriously decreed. (Seriously: Dances with Wolves was more deserving of recognition than GoodFellas?!) But the perks here are minimal: the postcard-pretty J. Michael Muro cinematography; a mid-film Danny Huston monologue about Manifest Destiny; the best-in-show Michael Angarano as the milquetoast husband to Jena Malone's fierce prairie wife. Its detriments are legion, from composer John Debney's grotesquely on-the-nose score to the “brutal” scalping scenes that suggest the practice was done, by natives and Caucasians alike, with child-friendly scissors. (Lonesome Dove's scalpings at least had bloody skin mixed with the hair. And there was also full-frontal male nudity in that mini-series! On broadcast television! In 1989!) Horizon: An American Saga – Chapter 2 lands in six weeks. But while I'm in no way eager to see a sequel to one of the most draining cinematic experiences I've endured this year, I will attend that release out of professional obligation. Also out of pity. Based on patrons' reactions at my nearly sold-out screening (In the Heartland! With a crowd of initially energized seniors!), I'm not much worried about having to endure a Chapter 4.

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