For various reasons, I’ve missed a lot of pop culture over the last few years. I’m behind on… everything really. Even after months of lockdown, with all my careful quarantining and marathons of TV and deep dives into directors’ entire oeuvres, I have giant holes in my current knowledge. Which is why I spent a few hours this weekend watching the first two films in the saga known as: A Quiet Place.
And my question is a dramatically screamwhispered: WHYYYY? WHY ARE THESE MOVIES?
Nota Bene: (deep breath) I did not enjoy these films. This review is going to be kind of mean, fueled by frustration and coffee, and as filled with spoilers as these movies are filled with bad choices and brazen stupidity.
By way of a very brief recap for all who remain: A Quiet Place drops us into a world that had been invaded by terrifying aliens who attack when they hear sound. The only way to survive is to live silently. We follow the Abbott family, who are trying to create a decent life on their farm, a goal that’s complicated by grief over the loss of a child, and stress over mom Evelyn’s pregnancy and looming delivery. In A Quiet Place Part II, the remaining members of the family travel to a neighbor’s bunker, things get even grimmer, and much more absurd. One of the family members goes on an expedition to try to find a better way of life for all of them, and things go awry.
Let’s start with some background. I’m one of those people who kind of likes Signs. (I understand if this makes you not trust me.) But as anyone who reads my stuff knows, I’m endlessly interested in the way religion pops up in media, and Signs’ use of aliens as allegory, while not even remotely subtle, was my kind of fun. I also loved the way Shyamalan focused on a ground-level experience of an alien invasion. Rather than watching ships blow the White House to smithereens, we see a small, grief-stricken farming family trying to survive an apocalyptic event with little information and no preparation. (The way it would actually go down if aliens invaded today, and we were all desperately tweeting advice at each other.)
That was the thing I kept thinking of while watching both of these movies, since the aliens are a little similar—they sort of read as a cross between the Signs aliens and Stranger Things’ Demogorgon—and now, in the second installment of A Quiet Place, we’ve learned that since they can’t swim, water is one of their few weaknesses. But honestly, I think Signs made more sense? Like what is the aliens’ endgame in A Quiet Place? They just attack people and kill them! They don’t seem to eat them? And they attack them instantaneously, so it’s not like they’re having the particular type of fun that comes from hunting prey. Why did they come to our planet? Or did they just crash here and start killing? If that’s the case, fine, respect, but that still doesn’t explain why they don’t eat what they kill—or what they are eating, if not us.
Also: <NicCageVoice>WHAT ABOUT THE BEES? </NicCageVoice> And animals in general for that matter—was every mammal and bird slaughtered for making noise in the first couple of days? If so, how did the remaining humans survive the overwhelming smell, rot, maggots, etc.? How is anything still alive if creatures that make noise—like, say, a loud buzzing!—are dead? Unless the aliens do eat what they kill, and we just never see it over the course of two movies? But again, if that’s the case then how are there two raccoons in the first film, who have apparently survived for over a year and a half of alien monster predation? Raccoons dive into metal garbage cans for fun. How the hell have these two cute little fuckers made it so long.
Okay, next: WHAT IS WITH THE FEET. Seriously. I feel like I have a hangover from some sort of cursed liquor distilled from the sweat of Quentin Tarantino. Why don’t they wear socks? Socks… are not loud? Are soft in fact! Why not at least wear them so you have some measure of protection as you walk over the lush post-human landscape? Who cares if you avoid the alien monsters if you all die of tetanus!
If running water muffles sound super well, why the HELL don’t they live by the fucking waterfall?
I hate to bring this up but, ummm, what is the bathroom situation in these movies? How does that… work.
How the HELL do you allow yourself to get pregnant in this situation? On the one hand, I get it, I’m not a total monster—especially in a time of despair and unimaginable stress, people would cling to each other for warmth and comfort, people would want to affirm the possibility of life in the most primal way they can. But wear a condom FFS! How the hell do you expect to live in this Hideo Kojima nightmare world with an infant??? COME ON. And why is the baby so huge and clean immediately after birth? And how can Evelyn even walk, let alone run around as much as she does. And yes, yes, the body is a miracle and can accomplish great feats under pressure, I know, but she literally is either running or shooting monsters for I think three days straight immediately after giving birth. Also we never see her feed this baby. Also this baby is a living saint who only cries when it’s convenient to the plot.
Did none of these people ever watch Arrested Development? WHY CAN’T ANYONE LEAVE A NOTE. I write all day. Literally all day. If I write, with a pen, on paper, it does not make a significant amount of noise? I think I could write directly in front of one of the alien monsters and be fine? So why the hell do these people keep taking off into the monster-riddled wilderness without leaving a fucking Post-it? Regan does it twice, Evelyn tries to leave her traumatized, anxious bean of a son with her newborn baby without explaining that she’s coming back, Emmett leaves Regan alone—and takes her hearing aid with him—but doesn’t bother to leave a scrap of paper saying he went to look for a boat. Did the alien monsters eat all the pens, too????? If not, you people need to goddamn explain yourselves.
And then we get to my actual problem, which is the weird retrograde world created in this film. Look, I have a particular set of politics, but I’m more than willing to lock them away in a box in order to engage with art from people who disagree with me. (I mean, not the ones who deny other peoples’ basic humanity, or want to electrocute me or kill me. But pretty much anything short of that? I’ll engage.) But why is this series so stuck on traditional roles? In the first film, Lee takes Marcus on the fishing expedition even though the kid is frankly, openly terrified, and, thus, a liability. He insists Regan stay home with Evelyn, even after Regan says she wants to go.
Yes, in regular times, the kid who’s scared of a thing should be gently nudged into doing the thing, so he can learn and grow. But these are still the early days of the post-apocalypse, Evelyn is about to have another child, and the family should be taking every opportunity to optimize their situation. Take the older, stronger kid, who actually wants to go on the trip! It’s not hard! Of course this snub makes Regan run away briefly, I guess because Girls Are Emotional? Except you’d have to be really, deeply stupid to go traipsing off into the monster-filled woods, leaving your very pregnant mother alone—especially given that Regan is deaf, and thus presumably can’t always tell if she’s making enough noise to attract a monster. (Which, sidebar: I did love how the films gave us a character who uses a thing that our current society sees as a disability and makes it a strength. Credit where it’s due.) And then of course the elder sister needs to be rescued by the little brother a couple times (because Jurassic Park rules I guess?), and in Part II, she has to be rescued by Emmett twice, because even after everything she keeps bumbling into the kind of trouble that you would think you’d learn to avoid when you’ve been living with alien monsters for almost two years.
And about Emmett—they barge into this poor grieving man’s bunker, and immediately demand that he basically fill the void left by Lee? He set traps up to keep people out, he has made his boundaries very clear, but they’re just going to walk in (or, you know, limp in, screaming and covered in blood) and be like “You’re our new Dad now, sorry”??? WHO DOES THAT. And the worst thing, the moment when I almost ragequit Part II, is that of course when the young girl and the grizzled depressed man go off into the wilderness, the girl is threatened with sexual slavery. I’ve seen 28 Days Later, okay? I’ve seen Fury Road, I’ve read and seen (and seen!) The Stand. I get it. I think we all get it. There are other ways to build tension in your goddamn post-apocalyptic horror movie than “Oh, the young teen girl might be assaulted by a sneering pirate in a sec, let’s watch what happens.”
Here’s why I’m yelling about this so much: I love horror. Truly, I love it. The things I’ve read and watched in this genre have become huge touchstones for my life, they’ve gotten me though incredibly dark places and allowed me the language to cope with trauma. Which is why it pisses me off when it isn’t done well. And these movies could be great. Even in the somewhat clunky universe of Signs, you get amazing, terrifying moments—the scene of Merrill Hess seeing footage of an alien on TV, and reacting exactly the way a person would; former priest Graham Hess losing his shit at God because his son is having an asthma attack while the family is hiding in the basement from an alien—I haven’t seen the movie in a decade, but I have a visceral memory of how those moments made me feel, the connection I felt with the characters, and the way aliens illuminated their hopelessness and grief. Which is obviously why, even though the ending of the film is a bit silly, I allowed it to work, because I was with the family, and I wanted them to make it out of the movie alive. About half an hour into A Quiet Place I realized I was rooting against the family, partly because they were making such aggressively bad choices, but also because the movie itself kept jumping up and down yelling “THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR GRIEF!!!”
But because I hate to tear things down without offering at least some constructive criticism, here are a couple ways to fix this thing:
Kill the music. Don’t give me a movie that’s about the need to stay absolutely silent at all times and then slap a score on it. I need to be with the characters, and to just use silence as a gimmick to let us know we’re in Regan’s POV is kind of a cop out. Let us hear what the characters hear, and only what they hear. Regan’s POV will be stronger if hearing people gradually notice that all the ambient sound is gone.
FOR GOD’S SAKE LET THEM HAVE SOCKS.
Please give us a clearer picture of the medication stocks, expiration dates, etc., because again, it’s been two years, but Evelyn is still going to that same picked-over pharmacy.
No more rape threat ever, okay? Let’s find other ways to deal with this shit, as a society.
And while we’re here, lets dispense with traditional gender weirdness, and allow the characters to do what they’re good at, the way people actually have to in apocalyptic situations! If that means that a girl who’s a skilled baker and great at sewing feeds people and makes clothes, great! But if that girl is intrepid and physically strong, maybe have her do the things that require physical strength, and allow the child who is clearly more anxious to hang back and care for his extremely pregnant mother.
Maybe don’t tie the narrative so heavily into the idea that Regan is wracked with guilt over her youngest brother’s death, and that Lee maybe kind of blames her for it, and that the way the two of them get to reconcile is that he finally tells her he loves her while he’s being sliced in half by a giant monster? That’s just a lot to process, especially when the kids have to immediately fight more monsters with their mother and the baby and then trek over to Emmett’s place first thing in the morning.
To build on that: Don’t make everything so huge.
Alien monsters have invaded the planet and killed almost everyone. It really seems like 95% of this Upstate New York farming community is dead, dead, deadski. That’s plenty to work with! We don’t also need pregnancy/childbirth/fires/flooding basements/puncture wounds/grain silos/A FUCKING BEARTRAP/multiple losses/Emmett’s wife’s corpse/a probable femoral artery wound/more fire/rapey pirates/aliens learning how to pilot boats/etc.! Pick one or two nightmare scenarios, allow the tension to build around them slowly, and then show us the consequences. Here, I’ll illustrate: as soon as the camera zoomed in on Chekov’s Nail, I was terrified. My guess in that moment was that Lee or one of the children was going to run into the basement, step on it, scream, and attract the aliens at a particularly tense point in the story—perhaps while Evelyn was in labor?
But no! Evelyn steps on the nail only a few minutes later, after she’s gone into labor and has to flee an alien monster. The wound in her foot, which she most likely can’t get antibiotics for, is soon only a footnote (heh) to the fact that she’s having to give birth alone, and is subsumed into the horrifying scene later when she has to swim through dirty water right after giving birth, with who knows how many tears in her skin, and a puncture wound in her foot. A foot that she then has to walk and run on, in unchanged, dirty bandages, whilst carrying the new baby and a shotgun and leading her family to safety, but she doesn’t wince or limp or seem worried about tetanus. Meanwhile, all three of the other family members charge up and down those stairs at different points, we zoom in on The Evil Nail, but none of them step on it. The returns diminish each time.
Do you see what I’m getting at, here? The movies pile so many problems on top of each other that the response is totally flattened by the end. I found myself disengaging from the movie because I couldn’t believe that these people, two of whom are children, and none of whom are ER doctors, nurses, paramedics, soldiers, etc., could survive so much trauma in such a small span of time and still function. The more effective scenario would be to let the Nail lurk on its step, biding Its time, until someone steps on it, howls, has to hide from the monsters, and then the family spends a significant amount of time trying to clean the wound and find antibiotics. Because again, the thing that will actually kill you in a post-apocalyptic scenario is not having access to clean water and medical supplies. Think of how much more effective it is to watch the family flee, slowwwwwwly, through a haunted fucking forest, as Lee favors his foot and knows that if it gets infected there’s nothing he can do? And that his family will have to care for him, he’ll be a drain on their resources, and if he dies—from something as dumb as stepping on a nail!—they’ll have to fend for themselves? Not only is he facing a slow, painful death but he’ll be abandoning his family when they need him most?