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Review | No need to whisper it: ‘A Quiet Place: Day One’ is startlingly good

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“A Quiet Place: Day One,” the startlingly effective prequel to the 2018 blockbuster about noise-sensitive aliens that devour anyone who’s ever annoyed a librarian, hits Manhattan with a bang, a nasty body count and a fair amount of audience suspicion. What else is there to say in a franchise whose characters can’t say anything at all?

But the writer and director Michael Sarnoski introduces himself to the series (taking over from “A Quiet Place” director John Krasinski) with a bold idea. His lead, Sam (Lupita Nyong’o), is a terminal cancer patient already steeled for death. Sam’s not at peace with dying — she’s angry, jaded and cruel to everyone in her hospice, including her doting nurse (Alex Wolff). But having nothing to live for and no delusions that she, a frail poet hopped up on pain patches, can rescue the planet, Sam bypasses all the usual heroic theatrics to set out on her own small-scale goal: Can she tiptoe up to Harlem for her favorite pizza? That dream slice, the last restaurant pizza anyone on Earth might eat, is guaranteed to be cold, abandoned and possibly even nibbled by rats. Still, what’s her last meal going to do — kill her?

This quixotic trek is more about autonomy than gastronomy, and it turns out to be a satisfying way to squish a global catastrophe into a human-size story. Joining Sam on the adventure are a British law student named Eric (Joseph Quinn), who pads after her because he’s too stunned and scared to think for himself, and her cat, Frodo, a creature so well-behaved that he’s more fantastical than any of the man-chomping nasties. (My own cat, currently clattering a pen off my desk, seems overconfident that he has eight more lives.) Animal owners will snicker when Sam has to figure out how to silently open the pull-tab on a can of pet food, an unmistakable crack-rrrrip that makes all hungry creatures come running.

Sarnoski has only one other feature on his résumé: the intelligent indie chiller “Pig” (2021), starring Nicolas Cage as a vengeful chef. The rising talent seizes this opportunity to poke around why we’re drawn to disaster movies where millions of people die. There are the obvious thrill-seeking reasons, of course, and the movie hurtles us into the horror and chaos of the aliens’ arrival. The camera spins, dazed, on a Chinatown sidewalk choked with clouds of ash, disorienting confusion designed to evoke the panic on 9/11. With mute, visceral horror, Nyong’o’s and Quinn’s big, wet eyes witness the other survivors catching on quick that they can’t sob, can’t ask for help, can’t ask what’s happening and can’t even cough the dust from their lungs. (I do wish our leads would whisper less poetry to each other.) Meanwhile, to make up for all the dialogue that’s not happening, the cranked-up sound mix makes our seats rumble and our teeth grind.

Really, though, Sarnoski knows that the lure of this kind of film is our own curiosity about whether we’d make better decisions than the characters on-screen. It’s easy to scowl at a stranger scraping a roller suitcase down the street. But just as we’re getting self-congratulatory, the editors Andrew Mondshein and Gregory Plotkin follow up that shot with another person, this one pushing a loved one in a rattling wheelchair. Those moments of moral paralysis, these glimpses of bloodied New Yorkers staggering across the screen unaided and unacknowledged, force us to acknowledge we’re not likely to save the world, either. So what then? That stale slice of pepperoni is starting to sound pretty good.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mild gore and scream-worthy suspense. 99 minutes.

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