'A Quiet Place: Day One' review: Lupita Nyong'o can't save the world, but she saves the movie – Chicago Tribune

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“A Quiet Place: Day One” works roughly as well as the first two films in this alien-invasion franchise, loved by many, liked by some, sort-of-liked by me. If it has the edge over the 2018 and 2020 movies, the reason is simple though her talent certainly isn’t: Lupita Nyong’o.
In Jordan Peele’s “Us,” a supernatural thriller with somewhat more on its mind than this one, Nyong’o gave the greatest recent performance not nominated for an Academy Award. In “Quiet Place 3” she’s excellent as well, as terminal cancer patient Samira, who has the bad luck to visit Manhattan with her cat, Frodo, on the very day the out-of-towners arrive, blind, mean, fast and blessed with excellent auditory genetics.
Each minute she’s on screen, which is most of the hour and a half, Nyong’o is alert and invested in every fiber of her character’s constant predicaments. The cat, too, I guess. Frodo’s the name, played by two lookalike felines named Nico and Schnitzel. Does Frodo survive? Sorry, that’s a spoiler. (Yes.) Does the cat have a leading role? It does.
Does the movie operate on the same blend of solemn regard for rugged individualists and shameless regard for jump scares? Of course. Does Frodo know how and when to remain completely meow-free (which is all the time) in order to prevent the spindly, speedy Death Angels from taking another life? A final yes. The cat keeps mum always, unlike my favorite bit player in “Quiet Place 3” who, early on, literally screams “We’re all gonna die!” and then does.
In the earlier “Quiet Places,” we followed the frontier family, the Abbotts, in upstate New York as they outwitted the visitors with their cunning and family values. This prequel, written and directed by Michael Sarnoski (“Pig”), re-centers things on Nyong’o’s character, who joins her fellow hospice patients on a field trip to a marionette theater in NYC’s Chinatown. She’s only interested in a side trip to Harlem, for one last slice of her favorite pizza before she dies.
The pizza joint holds personal meaning for her. As Samira, Frodo and a stray fellow invasion survivor join forces — law student Eric is played by Joseph Quinn of “Stranger Things” — “Day One” takes some time out for gentle if contrived comic relief, and some emotional catharsis to counterbalance all the kills. The cute stuff goes a bit far in the scene of Eric suddenly turning into a mute clown-show MC, introducing Samira the poet on an empty stage up in Harlem. This feels like an outtake from “IF,” another fantasy created by John Krasinski, who receives a story credit on “Day One.” It’s the one bit that got me rooting for the aliens.
Other than that, the movie follows a clear directive reasonably well. It is nothing but peril and exhaustion and superhuman resourcefulness in the face of two species not destined to get along. The Death Angels can’t swim, at least not without dying in seconds, and the plot requires Samira to deliver Eric and Frodo to safety aboard a ferry loaded with fraught survivors. Djimon Hounsou, a carryover from the second “Quiet Place” film, appears here in a supporting role. But at heart this is a two-person, one-cat affair.
That phrase “a quiet place” never really captured what these films are up to, nerve-shred-wise: They should be called “A Sudden Loud Noises Place,” or “21 Jump Scares.” But there are some fine, fleeting images, of the Death Angels descending a skyscraper from the POV of a human on the sidewalk below, for example. The movie’s visual imagination is pretty modest, aside from a few of these digital/practical flashes.
I do wonder about the general messaging of this franchise, and a lot of movies in the same vein. Is “Quiet Place: Day One” selling the idea that catastrophe too big for politics, or America’s actual crises, is the only way we can begin to get along? After the carnage? The films’ creators have deflected the notion that the earlier “Quiet Place” films have had even a toe in real life. But undeniably, the new film takes a big, blunt and queasy-making cue from Sept. 11. Samira’s experience of the initial intergalactic terror attack leaves her dazed, and caked in white ash and concrete dust. This imagery plainly echoes the unnerving and indelible photograph of World Trade Towers worker Marcy Borders.
Inspired, or shameless? Your call. My call is shameless, but Nyong’o cuts through that, the whole way. She plays the material for the highest possible stakes, mostly nonverbally — though the one moment Samira lets loose with a soul-clearing scream, a good-enough-for-this-summer prequel suddenly feels like it really, truly matters.
“A Quiet Place: Day One” — 2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for terror and violent content/bloody images)
Running time: 1:39
How to watch: Premieres in theaters June 27
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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