The most highly anticipated sequel of the summer of 2021 so far is called A Quiet Place Part II, but it seems familiar enough in some ways that I’m inclined to nickname it 474 Days Later. We have, after all, seen actor Cillian Murphy navigate similar genre territory before, playing one of the few survivors of an abrupt and global apocalypse, in 28 Days Later — one of the greatest zombie films ever made. I couldn’t help but think of veteran director Danny Boyle’s thrilling and thought-provoking film about the undead when up-and-coming director Jon Krasinski focuses his characters’ attention, during this alien invasion flick, not on the aliens themselves but on the monsters that global troubles have “turned other people into.”

Ultimately, though, it isn’t Boyle who comes to mind most often in this relentlessly familiar entertainment. A Quiet Place Part II plays, above all, like a mash-up of suspenseful scenes from James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens, Steven Spielberg’s 1993’s Jurassic Park, M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 sci-fi jumpfest Signs, and Spielberg’s 2005 re-imagining of War of the Worlds. In fact, I’d call this the most overtly Spielberg-ian exercise to hit the big screen since Super 8.

Is that a bad thing? No, not really, because Krasinksi proves he’s learned a lot from the master of adventure and suspense. His big scenes are imitations, but they work like a charm. And, during one of my first post-lockdown visits to a big screen, I was delighted by waves of nostalgia. Except for the fact that it lacks much of anything that feels inspired or new, this is how summertime moviegoing used to feel.

The Abbotts venture out into a wilderness loaded with almost unstoppable monsters. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]
Based on the film’s long #1 run at the box office, it seems that audiences are not bothered by the familiarity. They’re getting what they paid for.

The Abbott family, unfortunately, aren’t having any fun at all. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is still leading what remains of her family on tiptoe through a world of noise-activated human-smashers from outer space. She’s lost one of her sons. (No spoilers there — it happened early in the first film.) She’s lost her husband Lee (Jon Krasinski) — although we get to see plenty of his heroics in the film’s opening flashback scene (which is spectacular) to the day that the aliens began their planet-wide slaughter of humankind.

(By the way, if my mention of Lee’s death is a spoiler for you, forgive me, but this is a sequel, and there’s no way to offer even a brief summary without revealing that fundamental plot point. Critics who write about The Empire Strikes Back should be able to talk about Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ghost, right?)

Guns don’t kill aliens — people do. But, as Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) knows all too well, the guns help. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]
And so, traumatized but determined, she marches on, training up her remaining children — her deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, increasingly impressive), whose cochlear implants have become a sort of superpower, her jittery teenage son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and, of course, her predictably noisy newborn son.  They’re armed with the only effective formula they’ve yet discovered for defending themselves against the aliens — a maneuver involving sound and a shotgun.

There will be stumbles: one involving a bear trap, one involving a trip wire, and various other noise-making blunders. This will keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

But, more importantly, there will be some thoughtful ethical dilemmas that raise the question about what it means to “love your neighbor” in circumstances as dangerous as these. When they discover the possibility of more survivors in the region, they face decisions that wil divide them: Should they move in with Emmett (Murphy), an old friend who has been similarly traumatized by the loss of his family? Should they risk everything to follow a signal that might be sent deliberately as a beacon of hope to survivors?

Does Cillian Murphy have nightmares? If I played so many traumatized survivors of global apocalypses, I would. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.] 
As alien/zombie-apocalypse movie routines go, it’s compelling enough as it plays because, well… Steven Spielberg is a genius, and if you can imitate him effectively and direct children skillfully, you’ll find that his tricks are reliable.

Still, this falls far short of most Spielberg films in the depth of its storytelling because there just isn’t anything particularly interesting happening beyond the moment-to-moment tiptoeing and trying not to scream. The more we see the aliens, the less interesting they become.

What’s more, the most compelling actor in this ensemble is Emily Blunt, and she doesn’t get to do much more than sneak around in various stages of panic, while the film promotes Regan to the prominent role, suggesting that this trilogy is, above all, her story. Fortunately, Simmonds is up for the challenge of a demanding role, even if the film’s finale deprives her of any significant breakthroughs or discoveries. There’s something vaguely dissatisfying about a film that’s focused on survival when the audience doesn’t take much more home than the relief that, yes, at least some of these characters have survived.

Regan (Millicent Simmonds) sets out on her own in this episode, relying on cochlear implants for more than just hearing.

Let us praise, however, the work of cinematographer Polly Morgan, who makes everything look great. (Hooray! Another woman behind the camera making a strong impression in a male-dominant field!) Variations on Spieberg’s Jurassic Park kitchen sequence and the War of the Worlds alien-in-the-old-house sequence look slick and effectively suspend disbelief.

But the movie has no storytelling twists to deliver any cleverer than the first film’s “how we kill the monsters” gimmick — which struck me as too coincidentally convenient in the first (quiet) place — and it has even less on its heart. Don’t think about it much or you’ll fall screaming into plot holes. And don’t hope for surprises: We can tell how it’s going to end from the opening minutes. It’s a predictable and familiar amusement park ride — a very well-built one.

For what it’s worth, two hours after the end credits of A Quiet Place Part II ran out, I looked up from my afternoon session of grading student essays and thought, “When I’m done with this, I should go to a movie.” And then I realized, “Oh. Wait. I’ve already been to one today.” The experience had evaporated that quickly.

John Krasinski makes sure his character Lee gets plenty of onscreen hero time and plenty of tears shed over his absence — mostly from his real-life partner Emily Blunt, who plays his wife here too. [Image from the Paramount Pictures trailer.]
In my creative writing classes, I can usually tell pretty quickly which students have signed up because they’re excited by the prospect to write their own variations on things they’ve read in genre fiction or seen in genre movies. And while it’s true that most artists learn the skills and techniques and routines they need by imitating masters, it’s also true that few have the discipline or vision to move beyond imitation to innovation. It takes work to commit oneself to creative effort that does more than just make more of what we already have. It takes work to observe the world around us, reflect on what we see, and apply ourselves to long-suffering endeavors of discovery through artmaking. A Quiet Place Part II deserves high marks for technical achievements in genre filmmaking, but its screenplay reminds me of so may derivative disappointments: Everything I’m seeing seems like it was inspired by a movie that was inspired by a game that was inspired by another movie. If I was given this script in a screenwriting class, I couldn’t give it anything higher than a ‘B.’ And I’d have a chat with the writer about whether they’ll be content as a writer who merely copies what more inspired imaginations have done, or if they’re willing to work harder and find something visionary, something that is truly their own.

I’d argue Krasinski hasn’t given us A John Krasinski Film yet, just as I’m inclined to argue that J.J. Abrams hasn’t ever given us a distinctive J.J. Abrams Film. Given the evidence, I think they’re both skillful impressionists. I’m not saying their movies can’t be fun; I’m just saying I’ve never had that “I’m witnessing something visionary and new” feeling that I’m always hoping for when I engage in the liturgies of cinema. Sometimes, big movies do nothing more than go through the motions, providing us two engaging hours of escape from summertime heat. In this case, we’ve got a movie that gives us a momentary escape from our own all-too-familiar troubles by immersing us in the all-too-familiar — and far more entertaining — sufferings of others.

So, if you’re eager to get back to big-screen moviegoing, enjoy A Quiet Place Part II! If you’re cool staying home, make a wiser decision: revisit one of the more substantial films it imitates.

Follow-up Question:

Is it possible that some biggest moments in this series have been inspired by something from another genre altogether?