One of the finest, and more subtly fraught, moments in 2018’s A Quiet Place centers around Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” to which spouses Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) sway slowly while sharing a pair of earbuds. A sweetly romantic moment calcifies into subtext: If each one is listening to a divergent channel, are they hearing the same things?
That question has nothing to do with the strength of the Abbotts’ marriage or family, made up of deaf tweenager Regan (Millicent Simmonds), elementary-aged Marcus (Noah Jupe) and preschooler Beau (Cade Woodward). It has to do with the decisions they make to survive Earth’s invasion by giant, chittering, blind aliens that hunt via otherworldly echolocation. They hear you, they eat you. Thus, the earbuds for music, shoeless foot travel and, as the Abbotts learn the hard way, no noisy toys for the young ones.
During a flashback prologue to the day of the invasion, A Quiet Place Part II recalls that last moment with a brief, but devastating, pan across a general store shelf. The remainder brings to mind a different song sourced from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young pipeline, even if there’s not a note of it heard in the film itself: “Teach Your Children.” If AQPII slings any subtext, it’s to support meeting voices on the margins and learning from them. Given that this is a monster movie, they will be fed, to paraphrase the song, as much by nightmares as by dreams.
Written and directed by Krasinski, AQPII sends all of the surviving Abbotts out from sequestration at their New York farm into the unknown of the world beyond the closest town. There are a few new characters — most notably Emmett (Cillian Murphy), a family friend who has holed up in a nearby steel mill. Venturing far also naturally means run-ins with meaner, murderous strangers.
So AQPII is louder, gnarlier and more conventionally charged-up than its predecessor. Have you seen dystopian tableaux of abandoned cars for miles or skeletal corpses before? Of course, but writer-director Krasinski wrings chilling desperation from … let’s call it the flatness of one scene in a wing of the steel mill. You’ll catch your breath in almost every scene of naked, vulnerable feet slowly trying to clear canisters, coffee cups, cassette tapes and the like to avoid fatally loud noises. Most of all, you’ll appreciate that Krasinski doesn’t just copy every stinger from the first go-round, and AQPII often counters its cranked volume with a mournful Marco Beltrami score in which a detuned tack piano grinds down into a terminal decrescendo.
AQPII’s plot also involves the Abbotts’ next steps after their major discovery at the end of the first film: High-frequency feedback from Regan’s cochlear implant incapacitates the creatures long enough to drop them with a shotgun blast or a sharp implement. An unexpected radio transmission also gets Regan thinking that salvation is not only possible but nearby. (No spoilers other than this is, thankfully, not another Terminus situation from The Walking Dead.)
Krasinski’s smartest move is shifting Simmonds into the lead role, and she lends Regan a pragmatic push-forward attitude that avoids potentially exploitative pitfalls of a deaf heroine. He also conjures a compelling second-act tripartite of tricky and terrifying scenarios for Emmett and the Abbotts to survive; after all, no matter how you calm a baby, it will cry. It’s gripping from stem to stern, but peaks with a majestic sequence of Spielbergian morbidity that allows one character to catch a breath just when they need it. You’ll certainly welcome the nervous chuckle.
If AQPII stumbles in expanding its scope, it’s with essential expository information that someone in the Abbott family surely would have learned earlier. And Krasinski thinks he’s evoking Jurassic Park in the climax, but it’s more like The Lost World — combining a major eye-roll plot development with sudden and inexplicably stupid behavior from a heretofore stoic, capable survivor played by a venerable character actor you’ll recognize. However, the film’s last shot speaks to what works best: Effective creature-feature frequencies, amplified well beyond earbuds.