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A Quiet Place: Day One Review - Lupita Nyong'o And Frodo The Cat Steal A Somber Spinoff

  • Lupita Nyong'o excels at silent acting
  • Sound design remains outstanding
  • We would die for Frodo the cat
  • The scary bits are getting repetitive
  • Odd mix of tones doesn't work as well as in Michael Sarnoski's "Pig"

Whenever a promising new indie filmmaker moves on to studio franchise blockbusters after only a film or two, some movie lovers get concerned. Sure, there are examples of this career trajectory working out great — Ryan Coogler going from "Fruitvale Station" to "Creed" and "Black Panther," Greta Gerwig going from "Lady Bird" to "Little Women" to "Barbie" — but there are also many examples of the system eating up the little guys. Not every great director has the skill sets to make great blockbusters, and even competent franchise work can feel oddly anonymous compared to their personal indies.

The good news with "A Quiet Place: Day One," the prequel/spinoff/"cinematic universe" extension to the "A Quiet Place" series, is that Michael Sarnoski's auteurial vision does not feel compromised at all. Sarnoski has only made one feature film before this, the Nicolas Cage-starring culinary anti-revenge drama "Pig," but if you've seen "Pig," you wouldn't have to look at the credits to figure out this came from the same guy who directed it. Between the two features, Sarnoski's trademarks are clearly emerging: sad and lonely protagonists, cute animal co-stars, sentimental connections to food, and premises that sound like jokes but are treated with the utmost seriousness.

This distinctiveness of voice doesn't automatically equal a great film. The strange tonal balance that made "Pig" so oddly compelling doesn't succeed quite as well in "A Quiet Place: Day One," which also has to add the requisite monster movie jump scares to the equation. And those scares are where the expected franchise repetition starts to set in — the third time around doing this same routine, the horror hits diminishing returns even as the scale of the action increases, with viewers more inclined to notice ways these situations push the suspension of disbelief. But as a whole, "Day One" is different enough from its predecessors while meeting similarly high marks of filmmaking craft, resulting in a solid piece of popcorn filmmaking.

It's the end of the world, and I feel hungry

Where John Krasinski's two "A Quiet Place" films take place in rural upstate New York, "Day One" moves the action to the big city. The opening text states the average volume of New York City is 90 decibels, and I don't even want to know how many decibels further the sound designers have heightened those everyday sounds (you can always rely on "A Quiet Place" for amazing sound work). Though that raises a question: If the city is so loud on average, what determines which sounds are going to get the aliens' attention? Would all that background noise provide any cover? The film makes it clear that the sounds of thunderstorms offer cover, but maybe that's more to do with the aliens' general avoidance of water.

Samira (Lupita Nyong'o) is visiting from out of town when the aliens invade. After getting knocked out in the initial chaos and reawakening in a newly silent city — people seem to figure out the rules for survival very quickly while Samira's out — she travels with her emotional support cat Frodo (played by two cats, Schnitzel and Nico) from Chinatown to Harlem in dogged pursuit of one important post-apocalyptic mission: getting a slice of pizza from Patsy's. That's the part of the story that sounds like a joke; the serious angle comes from, among other things, the way she's already prepared to die as a terminal cancer patient.

Nyong'o is one of the best actresses around who doesn't get nearly enough leading roles, and her face's sheer expressiveness does all the emotional heavy lifting needed for the mostly wordless drama. In contrast to the family dynamic at the center of the other "Quiet Place" movies, Samira crosses paths with lots of people but is more or less on her own — Frodo aside — until a fortunate run-in with the exceedingly generous British law student Eric (Joseph Quinn) turns the film into a silent romance. Another apparent Michael Sarnoski trend: similarities to Pixar movies. The ending of "Pig" directly parallels the climax of "Ratatouille," and some of the most charming parts of "Day One" feel almost like "WALL-E" with humans.

Everyone loves Frodo the cat

Of course, Frodo the cat is the breakout character of "A Quiet Place: Day One." Putting the "save the cat" screenwriting formula into such literal practice is an obvious way to build tension amidst the monster attacks. Audiences will cheer for Frodo and his Buster Keaton-level stoicism in the face of peril. Is he too unbelievably quiet? It makes enough sense that his calmness would make him such a beloved support animal, so I choose to believe in Frodo. All real animals in movies don't know they're acting; the secret of Frodo's feline performers is they're not even reacting to the most dramatic scenes. It's the humans' job to make us believe CG aliens pose a threat; the cats just have to be present to steal the show.

I wonder if "A Quiet Place: Day One" would be more entertaining or impactful with a slight shift in its tonal balance. Could it be better as a dark comedy that's also sad instead of a somber mood piece built around a dark joke? I also expect those going in hoping for more world-building or connections to the other films to be underwhelmed. But if you've seen "A Quiet Place" and you've seen "Pig," imagine a pretty good combination of those two films and you'll find "Day One" will meet expectations.

"A Quiet Place: Day One" opens in theaters on June 28.