The Crisis of Believability in A Quiet Place Part II

The best action horror rides turn theaters into stasis chambers full of held breaths and beating hearts. James Cameron’s Aliens seems quainter now after the entire blockbuster craft reformed to imitate it. It’s been a long time since Roger Ebert described it as “absolutely, painfully and unremittingly intense” and ended his review by warning readers not to eat before seeing it. A Quiet Place Part II hopes to catch that lightning by stringing out its previous plot into a now three-hour sequence that aspires to be little more than a powerhouse ride. The viewer’s job becomes a devotion to an intended experience at the expense of believability because the details of John Krasinski’s little world don’t hold up for this long. Having a good time relies on refusing to acknowledge just how often this post-apocalypse comes apart at the seams.

Krasinski in his second directorial effort shines in crafting sequences on $17 million, well below the poverty line for a studio juggernaut these days. Compared to similar creations in Eternals, the creatures in A Quiet Place Part II cohere in threateningly organic forms. Lights believably beat off their scabby hides, as though Krasinski gave the technicians the time they needed to draw out the proper references, block the scenes, and absorb the audience into the movie rather than repulse them into their complaints on Twitter. Today, it’s a privilege to see effects respected so well. The money spent on the blurry fakery of Shang-Chi could have made A Quiet Place Part II twelve times. And don't underestimate the simple pleasure of it being 97 minutes long.

Visually, the aliens suit a world established with the ins and outs of a level in a modern video game. They’re the generators in its excitement machine. But as a piece of story, in a script written solely by Krasinski this time, the concept of aliens that hunt by sound was never going to fit perfectly in a noisy world after the initial high of the first film wore off. The phrase “turn your brain off” starts to seem more like a requirement than a pleasure. The smallest complaints are about alien anatomy, such as asking why any creature that hunts by sound alone would scream like a velociraptor and bump into anything that clangs whenever it gets hungered. Attentive viewers may also wonder why no amount of carnage in any of the film’s video game levels causes more than one alien to check out the noise. These complaints have to be write-offs if the film can be enjoyed at all.

The issues that matter are those that affect the believability of the humans rather than the aliens. Whenever they don’t seem to act correctly, Krasinski’s single-minded obsession with sequences becomes a burden since being immersed in the action is the film’s primary target. The idea that Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf in a world full of monsters hungry for audio cues that she can’t hear is a potential gold mine for tension. Yet she was written as though she doesn’t realize that she’s deaf. In this world, her head should be darting back and forth like a nervous bird. She should never be walking down a road without looking behind her constantly. Yet she stares in one direction while creatures slink into frame behind her, a sound way to weaponize suspense in a situation where she doesn’t know the rules of the world but pushed beyond believability in one where she knows the stakes. Krasinski was so in love with this concept of “blocking horror” that he negated her rationale. She can’t hear, so the script assumes that she doesn’t have an instinct to see.

The young boy’s (Noah Jupe) behavior is similarly conflicting. His inability to find a corpse in a closet without screaming and falling down is possibly justified by his age, but it seems more like Day 1 behavior rather than Day 472 behavior. These moments are driven by the film’s internal paradox, which is the need to set up a villain that seems impossible to survive yet can only be provoked to attack by the heroes’ actions. Mistakes are the screenplay’s only logical route to tension. This is why characters often seem dumber or clumsier than they can be forgiven for being by an omnipotent audience and why the aliens ignore obvious cues to continue action scenes once they’ve finished (gunshots that kill an alien defuse the situation without starting a new one). The film seems to believe that had only the adults survived, they could make it through the entire film without an action scene. The strength of the film’s opening is not only the craft of the sequence, which shows the characters’ reactions to the first sighting of the aliens, but also the presence of Krasinski’s father character taking control of the rules of the scenario in a situation that is nobody’s fault.

At key moments, such as when the aliens tear through unprepared crowds of people in swirls of arms and teeth like Cloverfield monsters crossed with Taz, the film develops an eerie catharsis. Carnage feels like a reward rather than a cost. Since the protagonists’ mistakes are its sole source of tension, individual deaths feel as much like just desserts as tragedies since they’re often caused by someone not doing what they’re told or not looking around to see if any pesky aliens are about. It’s out of ear, out of mind for the girl whose actions should be the most well-scripted suspense situations in the entire film, so any carnage that she causes is hard to condone. The viewer just wants to scream “Turn around!” It’s not the mindset Ebert had when he was fighting back vomit from sheer excitement in his seat during Aliens.

Despite its crooked immersion practices, potential sequels and spinoffs still seem like sound opportunities for the Quiet Place brand. Krasinski wisely includes details about how the world might change in this scenario, how random enclaves of survivors might define their needs, strategies, and mistakes differently. The film’s best moments involve these social transformations, such as a scene with a gang of dock-dwellers that ensnare passerby for their resources like human ant lions. Taken further, the series could be like a proto-Mad Max, a world built on the reactions of experience. Some people might resort to cannibalism, others to worship. Some might protect traditional civilization at all costs, even at the cost of its values. The possibilities are only limited by the screenwriters’ ability to think through the scenario.

In that sense, Krasinski's writing was the limiting factor of A Quiet Place Part II, which never expands far beyond the narrative content of a decent episode of The Walking Dead. He probably should have seized a sociopolitical whim in this universe rather than rely on continuing this one measly quest of his former family and the weaponized plot device whose implications were adequately clear in the first film's literal mic-drop ending. The addition of the radio transmission, an invitation to survivors to a secluded island in the form of the song, Beyond the Sea, is his way of creating an “objective,” like a marker on a game’s map. But it’s nothing but trouble for the film’s believability. It requires people to act irrationally in the pursuit of a whim as well as ignore the obvious questions, such as why anyone would assume that the aliens could understand a non-encoded invitation just because they have great hearing. It’s as if only the most ambitious protagonists deserve to move the plot forward. Emmett (Cillian Murphy doing a deadpan impression of a King of the Hill neighbor) is completely safe and on top of his little world before the protagonists come clanging into his hideout. The best movie monsters reveal the need for innocence in a scary world since it’s always the first thing to be destroyed. If A Quiet Place Part II does one thing fundamentally wrong, it’s that the viewer turns against innocence since it refuses not to take better care of itself. "They're not the kind of people worth saving," Emmett says of the new status quo of their world. He's talking about the disaster junkies, but some viewers will be twice as annoyed at the plot devices shaped like kids.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Platinum Dunes/Paramount Pictures

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