A Quiet Place Part II takes a good premise and extends it

When A Quiet Place appeared in theaters in April 2018, it was a worldwide smash hit, and I’ve spent a while since then trying to figure out why. Setting aside its star power (namely, Emily Blunt and John Krasinski), it was not obviously poised for success more than any other horror film.

The premise is simple: A family of five lives alone in the woods. The world outside their home is stalked by alien-monsters who are triggered into murderous rage by noise of any kind. They’re just trying to survive.

It’s a remarkably restrained film, mostly taking place over the course of one day, filling in only the barest background details, and letting us focus singularly on the terror of staying alive, and protecting vulnerable children, too. And I think that’s why it was such a hit: It delivers some excellent jump scares and whittles down a common theme in horror — keeping your kids alive in a world that’s trying to kill them — to its essence. It’s sincere and bittersweet, and it clearly tapped into something that moved audiences.

If the first Quiet Place movie was efficient horror storytelling, A Quiet Place Part II expands a little into the post-apocalyptic, answering some questions about what happened before the invasion and also setting the table for what will happen next. (It’s definitely meant to be, at minimum, the middle part of a trilogy; it’s also easy to imagine a TV series, not that one should.) The characters move around a bit more than in the previous film, and the outlines of the world they used to inhabit start to fill in. A Quiet Place was uneven in spots, but still felt like a startling discovery, which means its sequel has a lot to live up to.

And, for the most part, it does. A Quiet Place Part II starts in the story’s past. On day one of the rest of their lives — not in a good way — the Abbott family are in their quiet New England hamlet with their neighbors, watching a Little League baseball game. There’s no threat, yet. Evelyn (Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) keep tabs on their three kids: daring Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf; timid Marcus (Noah Jupe), swinging away at home plate; and curious Beau (Dean Woodward), hanging onto the fence and watching his big brother play. Nearby on the bleachers, gruff neighbor Emmett (Cillian Murphy) hangs onto his radio and watches his kids play.

Suddenly, fireballs from the sky crash onto the field, and havoc breaks loose. The opening sequences of A Quiet Place Part II feel obviously influenced by Spielbergian visions of apocalyptic catastrophe (there are echoes of War of the Worlds everywhere). And they’re skillfully executed. Krasinski returns to this sequel as director and sole writer (he co-wrote the first film), and he has a good sense of how to build tension in what we’re seeing and what we’re hearing.

Or not hearing. Soon we jump forward in time, to the moments after A Quiet Place ended, and pick up the story from there. I’m reluctant to reveal many details since suspense is so vital to a film like this, but there’s plenty else of note. Blunt remains one of Hollywood’s most reliably interesting action performers, swinging between the extremes of vulnerability and boldness that make perfect sense for a terrified, bereaved mother of three.

Jupe is stuck with the hard work — playing the kid who’s terrified all the time — but Simmonds (who, like her character, is deaf) also extends her run of great, emotionally resonant performances, turning into a bit of an action hero herself. The pair are two of the best teen actors working today, and their sibling chemistry is enough to carry the whole movie without any adults.

Murphy also figures largely into this installment, and boy, did I miss seeing Cillian Murphy in movies. (He’s been around, but mostly busy with TV’s Peaky Blinders.) Few actors are quite as skilled at keeping the audience on edge; he can walk a fine line between heroic and deranged, unsettling and secure, and in this role, those possibilities play to his advantage.

The performances in A Quiet Place Part II make it very watchable, when combined with some heart-pounding action scenes that deploy the presence or absence of sound to ramp up the anxiety. The movie sticks the landing, too, even if that landing clearly leads into some future sequel. Filmmakers sometimes struggle to know where to pull back, but Krasinski seems to sense that less is more, and turns in a confident, capable sequel. (Plus, it’s just so nice to see a summer blockbuster — even a sequel — that’s based on an original story, rather than endlessly recycled IP fare.)

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The heart of A Quiet Place Part II remains the same as that of its predecessor, and, to be honest, it will probably resonate more now than it would have in early March 2020, when it was originally scheduled for release. Parents seeking to protect their kids from a vengeful, baffling, indiscriminate threat to their lives by staying quietly at home? Mourning the world that was and hoping for respite, a place to live freely that is once again safe? Well, that’s pretty relatable at this point in time.

Yet as with all of the eerily “relatable” movies that came out during the pandemic — none of which could have anticipated what was next — A Quiet Place Part II feels relevant because the pandemic exacerbated what was already going on in our lives, agitating feelings we already had. The world feels dangerous, whether or not you’re a parent. We simultaneously need and fear our neighbors in a society where everyone’s out only for themselves.

A Quiet Place Part II retains the horror of its predecessor, but starts to raise the questions that post-apocalyptic entertainment often asks best. In the wake of earth-shattering catastrophes and unspeakable loss, how does a culture rebuild itself? Can a society find a new and better way to live? Or will we simply fall back on the old ways? As we approach the first big summer weekend of 2021, that question couldn’t be more resonant. A Quiet Place Part II is one place to start thinking about it.

A Quiet Place Part II opens in theaters on May 28.