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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The Unwitting Covid Allegory in 'A Quiet Place Part II'

When I watched A Quiet Place in theaters, three years ago, like many I was unnerved by the weight of the horror film’s immersive, awful, world-shattering silence. Last week, when I saw A Quiet Place Part II, it was the first time in a long time I’d been in a theater or in any room with so many people. The experience was personally emotional, yet I noted with irony how, in a film predicated on silence, I was made incredibly aware of how noisy a cinema is. All the ambient sounds—the crunch of popcorn, the squeak of tight jeans against vinyl seats, the whimper of anticipation—made me intimately conscious of the presence and closeness of fellow cinema-goers. In the logic of the film, these sounds could kill me; in the logic of our reality, until a few months ago, even their breaths could do the same.

Watching a postapocalyptic film more than a year into a global pandemic is an exercise in the uncanny. The dystopian vignettes of deserted streets and shuttered stores too intimately reflect what was very recently our own dystopian reality under Covid-19.

It follows, perhaps, that A Quiet Place Part II has been criticized for not being imaginative enough—either for being overly committed to realism (a strange critique for a monster film) or not offering enough background on the characters or monsters. Many critics seem to have forgotten that the film was in fact set to be released right before the pandemic hit. The film premiered in New York on March 8, 2020, but repeatedly delayed its theatrical release due to Covid. For a film produced before the pandemic was on the horizon, it was in fact uncannily prescient about many of the challenges we have since encountered, making its belated release ironically timely.

Already aware of the premise from the original, the audience is made jumpingly aware of noise in the sequel, and the film manipulates this to great effect. We flinch at the crackle of a plastic water bottle, bristle at the growl of a car engine, hold our breath at the clopping of boots. The film plays cleverly and counterintuitively with sound, deftly able to make visible the invisible and the inaudible audible—giving shape to silence as an absence of sound that cannot but be heard. The “silence” of the world, for example, is both heightened and brought into sharp relief by the amplification of ambient noise: bird song, cicadas, leaves rustling. Our world, even without us, is never actually quiet.


I have no interest in defending the original and sequel’s problematic politics. If the first film could be read as commentary on white racial fears, the second removes this possibility. Cringingly, people of color in Pt II are either made to appear imprudent and used as convenient scapegoats, or are sacrificed as noble martyrs for the survival of the white Abbott family. One cannot help but recall Nancy Pelosi’s terrible gaffe in referring to George Floyd’s death as his “sacrifice for justice.” In addition to an uncomfortable glorification, reliance, and romanticization of guns in the first film, there is the homage to reproductive futurism: Evelyn (played by Emily Blunt) shudders, “Who are we, if we can’t protect [our children]?” Even the indomitable Blunt breathtakingly emerges—if briefly— in full “Karen” glory when she demands that her traumatized erstwhile neighbor with literal skeletons in his closet, Emmett (Cillian Murphy), risk his life to bring her daughter back to her.

But the film also manages to offer some worthwhile questions. When the Abbott family first chance upon Emmett in an abandoned steel mill, he’s reluctant to help them. In fact, he has retreated so fully into isolation that an airtight blast furnace serves as his literal and metaphorical inner sanctum—one that offers protection with the threat of asphyxiation. It is this tension that A Quiet Place Part I and II explore more broadly as well: A gunshot can save your life, but invariably draws more death-dealing creatures. America and many other countries reckoned with this over the course of the pandemic as many people suffered with issues like mental health and domestic abuse in lockdown; conversely, premature reopenings or social events that felt uplifting to a life-giving degree ultimately led to more severe waves of infections, and invariably more death. Emmett’s inner sanctum acts as a symbol for his asceticism and his refusal to engage with the world. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin casts two forms of liberty: positive and negative. Negative liberty describes the absence of barriers to one’s freedom, whereas positive liberty denotes the possibility of acting to take control of one’s life. Positive liberty, however, presents a paradox: In an oppressive system, one may alter one’s own beliefs, convince oneself that one’s desires have shrunk, retreating “into an inner citadel” in which one feels content. This is literally what Emmett has done, and the strength of the film lies in getting him—and us—to recognize that what is necessary in the face of disaster is actually the opposite.

Emmett’s inner citadel also serves as an allegory for national responses to Covid-19. Indeed, physical isolation measures such as the closing of borders and travel restrictions may have been necessary, but a total solipsistic turn inward will not ultimately help any country (developed or developing), especially with regard to diplomatic engagement, sharing vaccine technology and supplies, and cooperation on virus-related research. Even though quarantines and lockdowns proved effective and crucial to curb the spread of the virus, protecting both individuals and the community, they left many in our society vulnerable. It is touching to reflect in hindsight on how many local mutual aid groups mushroomed in response to the pandemic.

The film also forces us to contend with the very ways in which our humanity is so fragile, our drive for self-preservation so primal and lacking dignity, often so instinctive and yet also so at odds with instinct. A nail-biting moment of body horror to mirror the first film’s squelching nail-in-foot shot occurs when Marcus’ foot gets caught in a bear trap. Marcus (Noah Jupe) howls in pain and Evelyn begs Marcus to be quiet; but later she too screams when she is stabbed in the leg by a monster. In moments of crisis and acute distress, people can react in unpredictable ways, even going against their own self-interest. In her book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry writes about how pain is dehumanizing—it undoes and unmakes us. It makes it so that we cannot think for or about others. And it is conversely the better angels of our nature that make it so that we do.

In one of the film’s most painful scenes, Marcus ventures out of the safe zone and, in his curiosity, accidentally causes a ruckus, leading him to flee from a monster into the airtight furnace with his infant brother and an almost empty oxygen tank. I felt robbed of air myself, imagining what I would do in his place, feeling morally challenged, privately horrified to feel myself compelled one way or another. I tried to hold my breath for as long as the characters on screen did, as the baby’s cries filled the theater. It was no good; I took a breath. How do we judge others for acting under moments of great stress, in the face of encroaching death—others’ and our own? After a year of global duress and death, of local shortages of supplies and resources, of nurses and doctors breaking down from having to decide who gets oxygen tanks and ventilators even as their own lives are at risk, these questions felt heavier for their closeness to reality rather than their being couched in fantasy.

In the darkness of the cinema, I found myself reckoning with my own quotidian cowardice, reflecting on the selfishness of self-preservation. It’s not possible to judge Marcus. Perhaps we all want to be young Regan Abbott (played by the remarkable Millicent Simmonds), whose heroism is defined by her deafness, the quality of her bravery made the more limpid for it. But it is more likely that most of us will be like Emmett or Marcus—timid, frightened into inaction in the face of death, only able to act upon our most cowering impulses. For me, at any rate, the terrified yet competent, clingy yet responsible, outwardly weak yet dutiful little brother Marcus represented a kind of touching and honorable model for survival, and perhaps a different kind of hero too.

But the film also offers a parallel and adjacent way forward through Regan’s quest, which acts as a corrective against only thinking about ourselves and demonstrates why thinking for others is in fact integral to our collective survival. Armed with pluck and wit, Regan determines that she must set forth if she is to save her family. It is her quest that subverts the usual postapocalyptic paradigm, in which survivors find a safe haven and make their way there in order to find community and rebuild. Instead, Regan and Emmett reveal their discovery about how feedback from the cochlear implants can be a defense against the monsters to the other survivors, and enlist their help to broadcast the feedback over the radio. Regan was never merely seeking individual survival; they went to the safe haven, as Emmett explains, “not to get help” but to “give it.” Indeed, before long, the creatures, like viruses, find a way to make their way across oceans and borders, infiltrating the safe haven and again bringing chaos and destruction. Over a year into the pandemic, and with countries that had previously been successful in keeping infections low scrabbling to deal with new waves and spikes, the film felt like a glaring metaphor. Regan’s commitment to thinking beyond herself and even her family is what ultimately and inadvertently saves them all.

At this milestone in the pandemic, A Quiet Place Part II serves as an ironically prescient allegory with which to think about developed nations’ approach to vaccine patents and global vaccine dissemination, and as a metaphor for the lessons we have learned as a global community—that our lives and fates are inexorably intertwined; that thinking selfishly about one's own protection will not work as a long-term fail safe measure. Alien monsters and viruses alike have a knack for crossing oceans and borders, penetrating bodies and communities. Even America's vaccination efforts will come to naught if other countries like India and Brazil continue to struggle to control the spread of the virus, as we are now seeing with rapidly evolving mutant strains that are becoming more intractable to control. Places such as Taiwan and Singapore that have dealt with the virus well through strict lockdowns and sealed borders are seeing new spikes due to new, more contagious variants. Our best—our only—way forward is not only to get help but to give it.

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