With more Americans getting vaccinated and tentpole releases finding some life at the box office, theaters are back—at limited capacity, but back all the same. Things aren’t necessarily returning to “normal”—home viewing remains a popular alternative after being the only sensible option in 2020. But certain films simply demand to be watched on the biggest possible screen, and those are the ones resurrecting theaters. If Fast 9’s early international box office haul is any indication, audiences are absolutely ready to embrace the brash spectacle of cars attached to rocket engines at [Vin Diesel grumble voice.] the movies. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Fast 9 makes a gazillion dollars—it’s a blockbuster perfectly calibrated to celebrate, and be enriched by, the theatrical experience.
The in-person experience of the horror genre is just as essential. An engaged audience falls into a collective silence compounded by dread—until a jump-scare fills the room with a procession of gasps, squeals, and unintelligible, despairing noises. There’s nothing quite like a good horror movie jolting you with a mix of fear and adrenaline and being part of an audience that’s feeling that jolt in concert. (If you were in a theater when [redacted] lost their head in Hereditary, well, real heads know.)
Perhaps the greatest endorsement for A Quiet Place, Paramount’s breakout 2018 hit, is that it’s a novel idea that is enlivened when watched in a group setting. Writer-director John Krasinski took a high-concept premise—the world has been overrun by monsters with acute hearing, so survivors must get by without making a sound—and implicated the viewer in its story. Just as the Abbott family, led by Krasinski and his real-life spouse Emily Blunt, must remain silent for fear of being attacked, a fully immersed theater audience is compelled to follow their lead and stay quiet. That’s because every sound—whether it’s the crinkle of popcorn, a seat being adjusted, a slurped soda, or, god forbid, a cell phone buzzing in someone’s pocket—is amplified when watching a film where such behavior is punished by a vicious death. (Imagine if the monsters were theater ushers.) Here, the type of anxious silence you get watching other horror movies is also part of the in-universe rulebook.
A Quiet Place is far from perfect—Krasinski’s exposition mood board is funny for all the wrong reasons. But few studio releases in recent years have benefited more from being seen in a crowded theater, even if, ironically, the film works best when basking in total silence. (Rewatching A Quiet Place from a living room couch just doesn’t hit the same way.) For Paramount, a sequel was a no-brainer—a means to capitalize on A Quiet Place’s novelty as a theater experience that’s a cross between a quasi-silent film and the traditional adrenaline rush of a horror movie. As an exciting new franchise, A Quiet Place needs theaters as much as theaters need it, which is why the circumstances surrounding the sequel’s original release were so fraught.
On March 11, 2020, the NBA postponed its season, and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced that they had been diagnosed with COVID-19. Immediately, society began to shut down. A Quiet Place Part II, however, had already held its world premiere, and was set to be the next buzzy release on the movie calendar. That calendar, of course, was pretty much scrapped (barring the occasional gamble to revive theaters in the middle of the pandemic, à la Christopher Nolan’s Tenet). Among the wider industry implications of Hollywood’s shutdown was the growing uncertainty surrounding movie theaters: when it’d be safe to return to them, and whether some would even make it through the pandemic. To wit: A Quiet Place Part II was going to be my next trip to the multiplex before everything closed—a hiatus that lasted for weeks, then months, and eventually for over a year. So much time elapsed that I even started to feel wistful about those cringey Regal student films.
While Paramount sold off some of its feature films during the pandemic, the studio held firm on keeping Part II and saving it for theaters—perhaps, in part, because its predecessor was such a box-office gold mine. But there’s another way to look at Paramount’s show of faith. As Part II finally comes out over a year after its original release date, it’s a reminder of why A Quiet Place became such a word-of-mouth phenomenon to begin with: This is a unique communal experience worth celebrating.
Returning in front of and behind the camera, Krasinski opens his impressive sequel with a flashback to the day that everything changed on Earth. (Obviously, Krasinski’s Lee Abbott is able to make a cameo because—spoiler alert—these events precede his character’s heroic sacrifice at the end of the first movie.) In the idyllic upstate New York town that the Abbotts once called home, everything’s business as usual; Lee makes a quick pit stop at the local store before catching his son’s Little League game. But ominous news reports about incidents overseas playing on the store’s television clue us into the swift carnage to come: an enemy that emerges out of nowhere and brings society to its knees.
Part II’s prologue can certainly be interpreted as an unintentional COVID metaphor, but it’s mostly an excuse for Krasinski to flex his growth as a filmmaker after the admirably restrained approach of the first film. (If anything, Krasinski has a morbid sense of humor, depending on how you read into one of the townsfolk being attacked by an alien because they didn’t silence their cell phone.) There are some terrific moments in the opening sequence, even if they feel derivative: a long take of Blunt’s Evelyn dealing with the unfolding chaos from the driver’s seat of her car practically screams (er, whispers?) Children of Men.
Apocalyptic prologue notwithstanding, Part II settles into a rhythm similar to the first film’s; the simple act of the surviving Abbott clan tiptoeing through the post-apocalyptic landscape wrings an excruciating amount of tension. The sustained stretches of silence, as when the film puts viewers in the perspective of the Abbotts’ hearing-impaired daughter, Regan (an excellent Millicent Simmonds), effectively recaptures that palpable, soundless anxiety that leaves theatergoers—even a limited number—holding their breath.
The Abbott family is entering uncharted territory on account of their farmland sanctuary going up in flames—an organic plot development that doubles as a bit of useful world-building. It doesn’t take long for them to cross paths with Emmett (Cillian Murphy), Lee’s old friend in the Before Times who’s become a cynical wretch living in an abandoned steel mill. (To be fair, he used to have a family; he has every reason to be mopey.) Emmett warns the Abbotts about trusting others on their travels—those who have survived are more foe than friend.
This is familiar ground for anyone who’s watched The Walking Dead: In a world filled with monsters, the biggest threat is often other people. It’s an interesting thread for A Quiet Place to pull on, but also in many ways a necessary one: You can watch the heroes quietly evade hypersensitive aliens only so many times before the “don’t make a sound” novelty wears thin. Because of the limited number of people allowed in a theater and the familiarity of the premise, Part II does lose some of its mojo; it’s not quite the same as watching the original film in a packed house. But like watching a superstar athlete past their prime, there’s still plenty to admire, and the franchise also proves it has some new tricks up its sleeve. To that end, the brief appearance from a group of feral, wordless humans—led by, of all actors, perennially underrated That Guy Scoot McNairy—communicating through hand signals and death glares is the most promising development for a franchise that’s already green-lit another movie.
In fact, Part II stumbles mainly because of the understanding that there will be a third film. The sequel is firing on all cylinders, with dual story lines putting our heroes in serious (and cleverly staged) peril against aliens and humans alike, when everything comes to an abrupt halt that mirrors A Quiet Place’s original cliffhanger ending. (Once again, they’ve exploited a weakness against the aliens.) It’s a move right out of the emergent franchise playbook: withholding enough juicy moments in the hope that audiences will be just as eager to return to theaters for a third installment.
Had A Quiet Place Part II been released as originally intended—in the spring of 2020, without a pandemic disrupting our daily lives—this shameless sequel-baiting would probably be treated with a lot more disdain. But after spending over 12 months without the comforting escape of theaters—without the warm feeling that you aren’t the only one quivering over a nail-biting scene—it’s a prospect that seems like a genuine return to normalcy. In a strange twist after a strange year, there’s nothing more optimistic than a studio cynically trying to sell you on another trip to the movies.