Thursday, January 30, 2020

Go Then, There Are Quieter Places Than These

Pop quiz, hot shot. What's the first film that comes to mind based on the following description:

A group of isolated survivors try to escape from a group of strange, alien creatures that hunt their prey by sound alone. These seemingly unstoppable creatures stalk their prey relentlessly, as the survivors try to make as little noise as possible to avoid detection. Eventually, the survivors are able to fight back and defeat the creatures by exploiting their reliance on sound, the very thing that made them such effective predators to begin with.

If you said Tremors, you'd be right.

If you said A Quiet Place, you'd also be right.

I make the comparison not to try and point out that A Quiet Place is simply copying Tremors, because that's not the case. I just thought it would be clever to point out the similar concept unifying these two films (an eerily similar concept, if one were to be honest), though for most audience members (especially those of a certain age), I'm sure this comparison was (almost) immediately obvious.

I thought it was appropriate, because A Quiet Place is a movie that revels in its own cleverness. It wants us to know how clever Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) and his family are for using trails of sand and walking barefoot to cut down on sound when making supply runs in the town near the farm they call home. It wants us to know how clever Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) is for making a soundproof nursery and crib for when the baby she is expecting is born. It wants us to know how clever the Abbott family is for reducing the risk of causing sounds that might attract the creatures by removing all of the doors from their home and clearly marking with paint the creaky floorboards to be avoided.

This is in stark contrast to a movie like Tremors that uses its premise to help drive the plot. A Quiet Place, on the other hand, gets so entirely caught up in its own premise that, eventually, this preoccupation serves to undercut the key emotional core of the movie (which is, otherwise, pretty compelling).

Tremors doesn't care about where its creatures come from or the real-world implications of what its creatures and their heightened sense of hearing would mean or how clever the idea of the creatures is and how clever the survivors' solutions are for living in a world with these creatures.

A Quiet Place about all of this. A lot.

Directed by John "Jim from The Office" Krasinski, A Quiet Place starts out promising. On a silent supply run into town with the family, Lee and Evelyn's youngest son, Beau (Cade Woodward) is killed by the creatures when he starts playing with a particularly noisy toy that Lee had taken away from him but which his older sister, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), secretly returned to him out of sympathy for what was honestly shaping up to be a pretty shitty childhood. Middle child Marcus (Noah Jupe) is notably overlooked in this whole drama, mirroring the real-life tribulations of middle children everywhere.

Cut to just over a year later, and the Abbotts are expecting another bundle of joy, while at the same time puzzling out how to facilitate the miracle of birth without making a fucking sound. The whole thing sets up an incredibly compelling family dynamic, where several family members are dealing with feelings of guilt, each believing that they were directly responsible for the death of a loved one, while still trying to go through the grieving and healing process together. OK, you've got me so far.

But then comes all of the self-congratulation over the cleverness of the film's premise to distract from this family drama, and essentially stall the movie out. This isn't a problem that's unique to A Quiet Place; I think this stems from a very contemporary urge to explain--in sometimes excruciating detail--every single component of how the movie world works. It's not just creating a highly detailed world; it's this reveling in the details themselves instead of how those details effect the story and the characters. See Suicide Squad for an extreme example of a movie so focused on its own premise that the filmmakers forgot to include things like a plot.

It's simple; I'll use ventriloquism to throw my voice and
distract the aliens, then when they're not looking, I coat them
with homemade napalm and set them on fire. The won't be
able to hear me over the burning of their own flesh, and
I'm free to continue to kill more aliens. 
To be clear, it's not about using quotidian detail to ground the world of the film; this is actually a necessary component of effective world-building. It's also not about the overuse or misuse of exposition to move the story forward. Unfortunately, the Internet has given rise to an army of armchair critics (ahem) that come fully equipped with a range of pre-programmed critiques, like "exposition = bad." Exposition is a necessary and (when employed properly) effective narrative tool. Inception, for example, is an exposition-heavy film even by Christopher Nolan standards, but it all works well because it's serving a necessary narrative purpose. The exposition in A Quiet Place isn't excessive, but it's also hamstrung by having the focus be on trying to further demonstrate how clever the premise of the film was, and ironically ends up defeating this selfsame purpose.

A Quiet Place fell into the very modern trap of getting caught up in exploring its own premise instead of using that premise to propel the elements of the narrative forward. A Quiet Place really, really wants you to know how clever it is, and in the end, this backfired in a big way.

Instead of focusing on how the premise sets the stage for character development or advancing plot points, the movie begins to eat its own tail after a while. As I was watching, I found myself starting to really nitpick elements of the film's logic, which is something I rarely do. I'm pretty forgiving as an audience member in this regard. As long as a movie's internal logic makes sense (for example, time travel in Looper), or if the movie is so compelling in terms of theme and character and storytelling (for example, time travel in Terminator 2), or even if the movie purposefully sacrifices logic for the sake of tone or entertainment value (for example, time travel in the Evil Dead films) , I'm pretty forgiving in terms of movies stretching plausibility nearly to the breaking point (and in some case, beyond). It is a "willing" suspension of disbelief, after all, and I don't watch movies not to be entertained or transported to another world.

The problem with A Quiet Place isn't that there are some glaring inconsistencies in the movie world that the filmmakers created. It's that the movie invites you to nitpick the details by actively nitpicking them for you first--all of the seams become obvious because we're looking for them, because the movie told us to by first doing it to itself.

For example, there's a scene where Lee takes his son, Marcus, out to show him how to fish to provide food for their family. They end up at a river by a large waterfall, and the son looks on in horror as his dad starts talking to him at a normal volume, as they typically communicate with sign language to keep noise levels down to prevent their own brutal murders at the hands (claws?) of the terrible alien creatures. Lee explains that the aliens will always chase after the loudest noise when they're hunting, and that the constant loud noise from the waterfall drowns out their own sounds to the point they can move around and talk freely. Neat. This is all super clever. Until, of course, I began to consider the implications (as so many other denizens of the Internet also considered before me). Why, then, isn't the family camped out by the waterfall in relative safety? Why, instead, do they live on a farm surrounded by all kinds of items with the opportunity to make all kinds of noise that will for sure attract the murderous aliens that will almost certainly murder them all?

Later, when the family is invariably attacked by these horrific aliens who are hunting them with their giant, mutant-vagina-ears, Lee sets off a bunch of fireworks as a distraction to (momentarily) provide some much-needed time for he and his family to move around unimpeded. Again, really clever. But then, once the fireworks died down, I began wondering: Why the fuck did he have one, and exactly one, diversionary measure set up? All that time to plan and set up contingencies, and he rigs a one-time fireworks light show? First of all, why not rig up the dozens of fireworks separately to provide multiple opportunities to divert the attention of these murderous aliens? Also, why not have a bunch of low-tech options to help you too? Like, why isn't the perimeter of the farm lined with wind chimes to constantly draw the attention of these creatures away from the people?

Honestly, I fucking resent being taken out of the movie like that. I hate having to nitpick this shit, but the movie forced my hand by constantly drawing attention to all of these things, and answering questions that I never even fucking asked. This, in turn, made me ask even more questions.

So when the emotional climax of the film comes, and his children are about to be eaten by the aliens, and Lee lets out this primal, emotional scream to draw the aliens' attention to him right after letting his daughter know that he still loves her and never blamed her for the death of her brother in a really emotionally poignant resolution of this familial relationship, all I could think of was this:

Lee is a fucking idiot and his sacrifice is meaningless.

The movie spent a lot of time establishing that the one effective tactic that humanity had in dealing with these creatures was distraction and misdirection. Lee is standing there still holding a pickaxe from an earlier, up-close encounter with one of the aliens, standing right beside a tool shed and a barrel of rusty old farm tools that was literally just established in that very same scene to be noisy enough to draw the creatures' attention. As this was all unfolding, I couldn't help but think to myself:

Throw the pixaxe, asshole!

Wow, this beard is so soft. That conditioner really works.
Throw it right at that barrel of rusty old tools and make a huge noise to give you and your family a chance to escape. And this is what I meant earlier about the focus of A Quiet Place on the cleverness of its own premise undercutting its emotional core. This relationship between Lee and his daughter was one of the foundations of the film, and you have John Krasinski and Millicent Simmonds acting the shit out of this scene, really selling the powerful connection between father and daughter, and instead of being able to focus on the emotional resonance of the scene, I was instead distracted by all of the minor logical incongruities that I normally would have been able to overlook had the movie not specifically tried to show me how clever it was.

The irony, of course, is painfully obvious; in drawing attention to its own cleverness, the film was in fact daring me to try and disprove its cleverness. But somebody who makes an effort to demonstrate that they are the smartest person in the room merely puts a target on their back and ensures that other people's enjoyment comes from disproving that assertion. And it's a real shame, because A Quiet Place was an OK film that had the potential to be great. (Also, a shotgun blast to the face stops these things, but the combined military might of the entire world couldn't stop these things?)

I think one of the reasons why the movie was so caught up in its own premise and its own cleverness is because it didn't have enough story for a full-length feature film. A Quiet Place really feels like it had exactly enough material for an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. Unfortunately, there are no current horror anthology shows that would be conducive to short-form storytelling like this. (Black Mirror is the only one that comes to mind, but its episodes are unified by a very important central message of "technology = bad.") As a standalone episode of a TV show, A Quiet Place would have fucking killed. In that sense, it felt almost like the inverse of Final Destination, which started out as spec script for X-Files but eventually was fleshed out enough to fill out an entire film (and several sequels with diminishing returns, which a bunch of people saw, I guess).

Fundamentally I think why Tremors works and A Quiet Place doesn't quite click is focus on the kind of film it wants to be. When I watch A Quiet Place, and especially the ending, I get the impression that the filmmakers had a really clear idea of where to start, but no real idea of where they wanted to go. Tremors, which is obviously very different in tone to A Quiet Place, horror-comedy as opposed to horror-drama, feels like it was shot out of a cannon; there was a clear trajectory in that film that the narrative felt compelled to follow. I don't mean to assume that the writers and director had a definitive ending in mind from the get-go, only that the movie feels like it had the narrative momentum to take it somewhere, and lent itself well to crafting an ending that made sense in-universe. Tremors is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be; A Quiet Place felt like a film that's really just trying to figure itself out.

For all of its beautifully silent shots and emotional core, it felt like A Quiet Place had no idea what to do with itself once it got going, and like a lot of Stephen King's work, almost no idea of how to end. Even though it's the journey that matters (and all that jazz) and not necessarily the destination, it's still necessary to feel that you're making meaningful progress, and the same is true of movies as it is of life.

The Verdict

A Quiet Place was a solid film that I felt never got the narrative traction it needed to really be a cinematic home run. It's a fun modern edition to the horror genre, but for me, I don't think it will ever achieve iconic status. I give A Quiet Place 6.5/10 = One Alien Head Screeching in Pain Due to Some Serious Sonic Interference


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