Movie Reviews

How A Quiet Place 2 is the Polar Opposite of Aliens, and Why That’s a Good Thing

The number one problem with horror movie sequels, especially those that venture into monster/creature/alien territory, is that of escalation. When the premise of a horror film centers around one singular entity as the main threat, the film can then end in only one of two ways, for the most part: Either the protagonist defeats the threat, or is ultimately killed by it. Either of these endings can leave the door open for a sequel, with the former being far more common. But in that first scenario, when the screenwriter must figure out how to continue a franchise once the main antagonist is already defeated or destroyed, there’s a particular hurdle that they inevitably overcome: How to make the threat credible again, when the audience already knows it can be stopped?

Sometimes, the answer is just to ignore that problem altogether, and just rinse and repeat the same formula as before. You’ll see this a lot in lower-budget franchises, especially if they lean into the more horror-comedy vibe. This is also the direction that most non-creature-feature flicks tend to veer towards. How many times has Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers returned from the grave only to do the exact same thing as they did in the previous 8 or 9 movies?

The other option is to simply up the stakes by virtue of multiplication. Did the first film feature a group of people trying to survive a night against a bloodthirsty beast hellbent on tearing them limb from limb? Were they able to slay the beast in the end? Well, guess what? In the sequel, there’s more than one of them now! Good luck surviving that! On paper, this feels kind of cheap, simplistic to the point of almost feeling lazy. But it can also elevate a film to a different set of standards altogether, because of one seemingly inescapable eventuality: Increasing the number of threats in a horror film almost always changes its genre to a more straightforward action narrative.

The most notable example of this is James Cameron’s Aliens (AKA the single greatest sequel ever made). Ridley Scott’s original Alien is perhaps the purest slasher film ever made, outside of maybe Halloween, because there’s hardly any real frills or extraneous contrivances to muddle its central conflict: A terrible thing is hunting a group of people one by one. The key element here is that the tension and suspense lies in the fact that this thing, the titular Alien, is not only nigh unstoppable, but its also unknowable. The characters, and therefore the audience, have no idea what this thing is, where it came from, or what it wants. It’s the physical manifestation of the fear of the unknown. The crew can hide from it, they can divert it, but they can’t delay it forever. And because of that, it picks them off one at a time until the only survivor is our Final Girl, in this case being tough-as-nails space trucker Ellen Ripley (played of course by the archetype for the horror survivor badass, Sigourney Weaver). Ripley is only able to escape and defeat the creature by sheer luck an ingenuity, and her survival is only by the skin of her teeth. The Alien’s eventual demise never feels like it undermines just how much of a threat it is, and the audience is left with the understanding that this thing is meant to be absolutely terrifying, based solely on how effectively savage it is.

And so, of course, the problem with a making a sequel to something like this, as we discussed earlier, is that we now know that it’s not unstoppable. It can, in fact, be killed, and beyond that, it was killed by a complete civilian with improvised tactics and weaponry. Even more challenging is the fact that the audience has now seen the creature. So much of the terror in the original film comes from the complete lack of visible presence the beast had until the final act of the film. Like the shark in Jaws, the less you see of a monster, the scarier it is. So with all that in mind, how do you make a compelling addition to the franchise while at the same time keeping the audience in suspense?

 Well, if you’re James Cameron, you just add an ‘s’ to the title. Yes, Cameron’s sequel to Alien chooses to up the stakes of its predecessor by taking the original threat and multiplying it by dozens, if not hundreds. You thought one Alien was scary? What about a whole hive of ‘em? If one was hard to kill, then twenty should be borderline apocalyptic.

Now, of course, in Cameron’s hands, this was ultimately pretty damn effective, creating one of the tensest and adrenaline-inducing film experiences of all time, but Aliens is pretty much the exception here. Look at something like Tremors: While the first film isn’t exactly horror, there’s still tension in the fact that there are very few of the film’s monsters, and they’re extremely deadly. But by the third or fourth sequel, the characters are mowing them down in waves like they’re nothing. When your focus shifts from horror to action, your source of tension and suspense also in turn shifts from fear to exhilaration.

See, when your characters go against multiple instances of something of which they’ve already previously encountered one of, especially when they’re now armed with knowledge of said thing, you run into a little problem called the “Conservation of Ninjitsu.” As goofy as this sound, the Conservation of Ninjitsu refers to the trope in which an antagonistic force (a ninja in the trope-namer) is always more threatening as a single entity. It’s the nature of effective storytelling: With one singular threat, that threat must obviously be a looming source of conflict for the duration of the entire film. Whereas with multiple instances of that same threat, a film can afford to have its characters dispatch some of them along the way. As a result, the antagonistic entity no longer seems as dangerous. Now, Aliens largely avoids the consequences of this trope by actually following through with the increased danger that multiple Aliens would largely result it, but it still drastically reduces the menace that they carry on an individual basis.

This was ultimately my greatest fear going into A Quiet Place Part 2: That, in lieu of the slow, methodical weaving of suspense that the original reveled in to great success, we would get a much more action-packed, energetic film in its place. And the ending of the first film certainly seemed to aim in that direction. The final left us with Emily Blunt and her brood accidentally uncovering the sound-hating monsters’ weakness and delivering swift judgement to the previously-invulnerable beasts at the smoking end of a double-barreled shotgun. Evidence seemed to suggest that there was a real possibility  Part 2 would be following in the footsteps of Aliens, with Blunt and crew now being far less threatened by the terrors of their world, now that they were armed with the knowledge and the means of defeating them.

But I can say, with great relief, that this is not the case whatsoever. A Quiet Place Part 2 chooses, very wisely, to preserve the tension of the original wholeheartedly, if not actually ramping it up by a significant margin. It picks up precisely where the original left off, with the dead monster still lying at Emily Blunt’s bloodied feet, and a screaming baby in the corner. But instead of now feeling empowered by their ability to hurt and even kill the monsters, the characters now feel even more vulnerable: In a world where silence is survival, how do you manage to navigate the perils of such an environment with a newborn baby, who are notoriously known to be rudely and unapologetically loud?

This is the biggest strength of A Quiet Place Part 2. The film in no way reduces the threat posed by the creatures. Yes, the characters have a method to fight back against them. But it’s a clunky, unwieldy method, one that was discovered on accident and under extreme duress. The family is not suddenly transformed into a group of hardened, monster-slaying badasses. They just got lucky. Instead of making the monsters less of a threat by decreasing their overall effectiveness as killers, the film sustains and expands its potential for suspense and dramatic tension by increasing the pitfalls and weaknesses related to the characters themselves. The screaming infant is a major one of these, but there are many more on display in the film as well, each woven in organically and extremely efficiently into the super tight and economic script. A Quiet Place Part 2 is not afraid to make its characters feel vulnerable, which is central to preserving a sense of apprehension and panic, and in turn makes them much more engaging and sympathetic to the audience overall.

By making the struggles of the individual characters themselves the central source of contention within the film, it also opens the door from some incredible performances as well. Emily Blunt shines once again, giving a complex performance of raw, Mama Bear determination and resilience, while at the same time suffering from immense grief. Newcomer to the franchise Cillian Murphy absolutely owns his role, as fans of his work have all likely come to expect by now, playing a broken character crippled by grief and loss of his own.

But as with the first film, the real stars of the film are the two children. While by no means being minor characters in the previous movie, the kids really take center stage here, and the film as a whole is all the better for it. Millicent Simmonds, who portrays the family’s hearing-impaired daughter (a real-life deaf person herself), once again shines as the standout performer, adopting many of her in-universe father John Krasinski’s heroic and leadership traits as she pushes the bulk of the film’s narrative this go around. And after being relegated to somewhat of a background character in A Quiet Place, Noah Jupe is given a truly stellar chance to shine in a much meatier, much more emotionally charged and rewarding role in the sequel.

These fantastic performances only work so well because the world of the film, which is one that depends so much on genuine tension, anxiety, and unease, is uncompromised by the characters’ discoveries and growth at the end of the previous film. That same feeling of struggle, of fear, and, at times, of hopelessness, remains unchanged. The central threats in this film remain just as effective and frightening as in the original, if not more so. And as much as I admittedly would have enjoyed a film in which Emily Blunt wanders the land kicking monster ass with a baby on her back, the film is much stronger for having not gone down that road. I eagerly await what Krasinski brings with the inevitable Part 3.

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