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With few words, Lupita Nyong'o's 'Quiet Place: Day One' performance speaks for itself

Lupita Nyong’o as as Samira in <em>A Quiet Place: Day One. </em>
Gareth Gatrell
Lupita Nyong’o as as Samira in A Quiet Place: Day One.

First, let’s insert the obligatory Hollywood is too reliant on prequels, sequels, and reboots spiel here, and get it out of the way. It’s absolutely and mightily true.

And yet. Every now and then – perhaps more often than a film critic might recognize, but certainly not enough to invalidate such an observation – a piece of intellectual property actually justifies its existence as something other than a shallow cash cow. Michael Sarnoski’s A Quiet Place: Day One, the prequel to the original A Quiet Place and its sequel, admirably makes its own case for returning us to the franchise’s clever doomsday scenario. Much of the gratitude for this should be aimed straight at its star, a characteristically magnetic Lupita Nyong’o.

The original film’s conceit allowed its director, co-writer, and star John Krasinski to play with sound (and the absence of it) while riffing on obvious forebears like Alien and Jurassic Park: In a post-apocalyptic world, an invasion of murderous aliens with ultrasonic hearing forces the human population into a near-total silent existence, or risk being eaten. Day One, as its title makes plain, looks back to the right-before times, just as the creatures disrupt the normal way of life in New York City.

For poet Samira (Nyong’o), the normal way of life is sickness as a cancer patient, and she’s deeply unhappy. But then the aliens crash down, and suddenly a debilitating illness is no longer her most pressing concern. As Sam navigates the ruined city, she must contend with not just aliens but an extremely anxious tagalong named Eric (Joseph Quinn). Unlike her, Eric is apparently reckoning with his own mortality for the first time ever as a young adult. He’s not handling it well at all.

So often in Hollywood movies where the stakes are astronomically high the screenplay will call upon a long-lost loved one to do much of the emotional heavy lifting. An endangered, deceased, or murdered child/wife/parent/pet has always and will forever make for the perfect, if paint-by-numbers, narrative device. The original A Quiet Place is no different; it begins with the youngest child of the Abbott family meeting a swift and grisly death by one of those murderous aliens.

Sarnoski, who previously directed the engrossing Nicolas Cage film Pig (the one where Cage hunts for the thieves who stole his truffle-hunting swine), plays around a bit with such contrivances here, though there’s an overreliance on Sam’s adorable black and white cat, Frodo, who is clearly designed to make animal lovers swoon and worry and melt with every terrifying twist and turn of their journey.

But making Day One’s protagonist an ordinary person who’s already wrestling with the possibility of their own premature demise proffers existential questions and ideas that rarely show up in Hollywood would-be blockbusters. From where does the will to live spring during a state of catastrophic emergency, when already facing death in another form? What feelings get prioritized (and are worth prioritizing) while in full-on survival mode?

The Day One screenplay just about scratches the surface of such questions, but Nyong’o highlights and triple-underlines them in her performance. In a movie that requires little dialogue, the actress is one of very few who has what it takes – namely, a richly expressionistic face and intentional way of speaking – to carry this kind of role and bring gravitas to an action-laced spectacle co-produced by none other than Michael Bay.

Lupita Nyong'o in the 2019 zombie comedy <em>Little Monsters</em>.
Simon Cardwell / Neon
Lupita Nyong'o in the 2019 zombie comedy Little Monsters.

Since her Oscar-winning feature debut in 12 Years a Slave she’s proven masterful at playing characters who must keep it together on the outside while falling apart inside. This is especially true of her previous roles within the horror genre: the zombie comedy Little Monsters, as a bubbly kindergarten teacher who tries to keep her students calm and distracted on a field trip while fighting off flesh-eaters, and, of course, Us, a dual-pronged performance that benefits from repeat viewings to fully appreciate the disturbance, fear, and rage that simmers beneath Adelaide/Red. (It’s also not that far-fetched to consider 12 Years to be a horror in its own way, but that’s its own academic thesis for someone else to argue.)

Sam, too, is disturbed, fearful, and enraged – by her life’s circumstances and by the world around her. Nyong’o embraces these prickly qualities, but allows warmth to creep in, too, particularly as her bond with Eric solidifies.

Quite simply: Nyong’o elevates the franchise. Think too hard about some of the machinations of Day One, and they won’t quite hold; the same was certainly true of A Quiet Place. But funnily enough, this subsequent prequel resonates more deeply and thoughtfully than its predecessor – and far more than the third installment of a franchise has any right to.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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