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A Quiet Place: Day One review: a shockingly tense and moving sci-fi prequel

a quiet place day one 2024 movie review joseph quinn and lupita nyongo stand near escalators in
A Quiet Place: Day One
“With its reflective, unexpectedly introspective story, director Michael Sarnoski's A Quiet Place: Day One is the rare prequel that doesn't feel like a waste of time.”
Pros
  • Joseph Quinn and Lupita Nyong'o's endearing lead performances
  • Michael Sarnoski's character-first screenplay
  • A cathartic, immensely satisfying third act
Cons
  • A few action scenes feel forced
  • A second act that occasionally drags

The transition from independent film to blockbuster moviemaking isn’t always kind to directors. In Hollywood’s current, franchise-obsessed era, that’s become especially true. While plenty of filmmakers have made the leap in recent years, only a handful of them (ex. Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig) have been able to successfully bring their own distinct voices and perspectives to the franchise or blockbuster movies they’ve made. There were, therefore, reasons to wonder whether Pig director Michael Sarnoski would really be able to deliver A Quiet Place: Day One as a film that actually felt like it was made by him, rather than by committee.

Lo and behold, that’s exactly what Sarnoski has done. The filmmaker’s follow-up to his acclaimed, Nicolas Cage-led 2021 directorial debut is a heartfelt, uncompromising thriller that frequently feels more like a grounded relationship drama than an apocalyptic alien invasion movie. With it, Sarnoski has effectively added more tools to his toolkit without sacrificing the aspects of his filmmaking that made Pig not only stand out from the rest of 2021’s movies but actually seem like the announcement of a new, truly promising writer-director.

Lupita Nyong'o walks through rubble in A Quiet Place: Day One.
Paramount Pictures

Set before the main events of its franchise’s first two installments, A Quiet Place: Day One follows Sam (Lupita Nyong’o), a sickly woman who accepts an invitation from Reuben (Alex Wolff), a kind hospice worker, to take a quick day trip with a few of her fellow patients into New York City. While there, Sam’s plan to buy one last slice of authentic NYC pizza is turned upside down by the sudden, violent invasion of blind aliens that kill any human they hear. Trapped in one of the loudest cities in the world, Sam is forced to decide where her priorities lie as she and her scene-stealer of a cat, Frodo, try to make it across the Big Apple without making any discernible noises or dying.

Along the way, the pair are joined by Eric (Stranger Things season 4 breakout star Joseph Quinn), a British law student who — after nearly dying in a flooded subway tunnel — latches onto Sam and Frodo like they’re his life preservers. As Sam and Eric slowly grow closer together throughout Day One‘s second half, the film inevitably calls to mind other postapocalyptic blockbusters like Children of Men and Logan, both of which similarly center around protagonists whose reluctance to connect with anyone else is gradually eroded. While the arc of Sam and Eric’s relationship is one that viewers have seen before, though, Day One makes it work.

Quinn and Nyong’o each give profoundly likable, charismatic performances as two characters whose lives could not be more different. Whereas Sam has seemingly little left in front of her when Day One begins, Eric is still waiting for his life to start. This difference allows the film’s leads to simultaneously complement and stand apart from each other. Quinn’s performance is one of rattled nerves and quiet disbelief; Nyong’o’s conveys the deeper, more resigned pain of someone who has had to come to terms with her world ending long before it did for anyone else. When Eric whispers, “This wasn’t part of the plan,” during a memorable scene around Day One‘s midpoint, Sarnoski mines every ounce of emotion he can out of a subsequent cut to Nyong’o’s face as she silently responds with a look of pure, heartbroken understanding.

Djimon Hounsou keeps Lupita Nyong'o quiet in A Quiet Place: Day One.
Paramount Pictures

It is, unsurprisingly, in A Quiet Place: Day One‘s quieter (no pun intended) scenes of connection and reflection that Sarnoski shines the most as a director. Working again with his Pig cinematographer, Pat Scola, Sarnoski hinges many of Day One‘s biggest scenes on close-ups that understand just how powerfully expressive Quinn and Nyong’o are as performers. The film, consequently, emerges as the rare sci-fi blockbuster that isn’t oblivious to the power of the human face. Visually, Sarnoski brings his character-first approach to both Day One‘s less-explosive scenes and its biggest set pieces, some of which are less nerve-shredding than you’d hope but all of which manage to beautifully use simple reaction shots to generate considerable levels of tension.

The film’s script, which Sarnoski penned alone from a story by him and A Quiet Place director John Krasinski, manages to find a mostly satisfying balance of action and human drama. Its back half, specifically, finds a pleasing rhythm that Sarnoski and editors Gregory Plotkin and Andrew Mondshein do their best to maintain for as long and consistently as they can. Sometimes, their efforts to do so lead to action sequences, such as a life-threatening detour taken by Quinn’s Eric to save Sam’s cat from an alien nest, that feel shoehorned in for the sake of briefly generating tension. However, the film doesn’t make this mistake enough times to result in it overstaying its welcome.

A Quiet Place: Day One sticks to its lean 99-minute runtime and yet still manages to organically build to a conclusion that is as emotionally cathartic as it is narratively satisfying. In doing so, the film demonstrates — just in case it wasn’t already clear — a firm understanding on Sarnoski’s part of what ultimately matters most, even in a movie as big and high-concept as his latest. Day One is an often stunningly made prequel that doesn’t concern itself with tedious tasks like further fleshing out the details of its franchise’s dystopian future or making unnecessary references to its two predecessors.

The film isn’t interested in anything other than its characters’ respective stories, and that allows it to achieve a profundity that is both unexpected and welcome. Not only is it the rare prequel that actually deserves to exist, but whether it’s making you jump in fear or cry, A Quiet Place: Day One has the power to take your breath away.

A Quiet Place: Day One is now playing in theaters.

Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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