Producers: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller and John Krasinksi   Director: Michael Sarnoski   Screenplay: Michael Sarnoski Cast: Lupita Nyong’o, Joseph Quinn, Alex Wolff, Djimon Hounsou, Nico and Schnitzel    Distributor: Paramount

Grade: B

It may be a completely unnecessary prequel (after all, the prologue to the second movie in the franchise already dramatized the start of the alien invasion pretty well in a mere ten minutes), but in his second feature writer-director Michael Sarnoski, who previously scored with the unexpectedly effective Nicolas Cage vehicle, “Pig,” in 2021, manages to make “A Quiet Place: Day One” better than you might expect. He moves from a small-scaled debut to mid-sized studio project with apparent ease, though the comparatively limited budget (reportedly under $70 million) means that genre fans lusting after a constant splurge of effects and carnage will be disappointed.  So will viewers looking for some backstory to the invasion: the speedy monsters with exceptionally acute hearing just appear once again to destroy and devour. 

In fact the movie is a mixture of tearjerker and creature feature, with a new, much larger setting in New York City and two new characters—three if you count the cat that accompanies them in their journey through the rubble—replacing the small-town Abbott family from the first two installments.  The central figure is Sarina (Lupita Nyong’o), a stage-four cancer patient introduced in a hospice.  She’s understandably embittered and brusque, brushing aside assurances from her solicitous nurse Reuben (Alex Wolff) that he’s her friend; she’s only close to her ever-present service cat Frodo (played by two black-and-white felines called Nico and Schnitzel) and, as it will be revealed, to the memory of her dead jazz-pianist father.

A loner, she agrees to board the bus Reuben’s arranged to drive patients to a show in the city—it turns out to be a puppet show—if he’ll promise to take her out for pizza from her favorite restaurant in Harlem on the way back.  She connects with a little boy in the audience, the son of Henri (Djimon Hounsou), who’s taken with Frodo, but just as the bus is being boarded for the return trip, Reuben announces that the pizzeria visit will have to be postponed because of an emergency warning.  The invasion has begun, devastation is everywhere, Reuben is snatched away, and Sam is left on her own (except, of course, for Frodo).

By this time survivors have learned that silence is their sole protection, and Sam encounters groups of them as they trudge to points of supposed safety.   But even the slightest sound, like the creak of a wheelchair against the pavement, can invite a mass attack.  At a fountain, where the falling water affords some respite, she befriends a couple of terrified children, but they join the multitudes, leaving her alone until Frodo discovers Eric (Joseph Quinn), a young Englishman who emerges gasping for breath from a flooded subway tunnel.  He latches onto Sam, and they bond through a series of close escapes as they make their way to Harlem, where they find the burnt-out shell of her cherished pizzeria and the club where her father used to play.  There, among other things, Eric performs a card trick to amuse her. 

The finale sees Sam urging Eric to escape with Frodo to a passing barge loaded with survivors, including Henri, despite his fear of water (something he shares with the aliens).  But giving him the chance to make it to a dock will require a noisy distraction. 

Though many viewers will miss the Abbotts, it’s unquestionable that unless the plot had been advanced by some years, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe) would have been too old to convince.  And the newcomers quickly build rapport with one another and the audience.  Nyong’o anchors the film, ably constructing a character who moves from being abrupt and unpleasant at the start to one who’s caring as well as confident by the close.  Quinn too undergoes a credible transformation from awkward and needy to generous and anxiously determined.  And while Wolff and Hounsou are both fine in relatively small roles, they and the rest of the human supporting cast are definitely secondary to what’s essentially a two-hander.

Unless you count Frodo.  The cat (actually cats) is so much a presence here that he’s like a third part of the equation, and his performance is every bit as convincing as that of his two human co-stars.  The felines’ work is a credit to their trainer(s).  Cat fanciers should certainly check out the movie, even if ordinarily they shun this sort of genre fare.

Made in England, the film isn’t all that successful in depicting a smashed-up Big Apple; the production design by Simon Bowles has some very impressive elements (a sequence set in a glass skyscraper is especially good), but the scenes in the post-attack streets have a fairly artificial look, and the fleeing crowds are pretty small.  But the creature effects (visual effects supervised by Malcolm Humphreys and special effects supervised by Mark Holt) are excellent, and the sequences showcasing them are expertly edited by Gregory Plotkin and Andrew Mondshein, who, in concert with Sarnoski and cinematographer Pat Scola, also allow a nice balance between the action set pieces and the human interest inserts that portray Sam and Eric—and Frodo—in the intervening still moments.  Alexis Grapsas’ score bolsters the big action outbursts while being smart enough to cease during the hushed ones.

Frankly, on hearing of this prequel, one could very well expect the worst and say, “Okay, one-and-done.”  But if it succeeds, as is probably will, one can imagine studio types contemplating the numerically outdated final lines of Jules Dassin’s 1948 police procedural: “There are eight million stories in the naked city.  This has been one of them,” and salivate over the possibility of endless installments (which, of course, prompted a TV series already).  That’s an inclination that should be resisted. 

For now, however, “Day One,” like the two earlier films in the series, efficiently blends a human story with horror-movie tropes.  It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but gives it another effective spin.