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Review: ‘A Quiet Place: Day One’ is the rare prequel that outclasses the original for mood

To watch “A Quiet Place: Day One” is to recalibrate your senses — not to the alien horror movie you know is in store but rather, to the intimate human drama it hangs onto, long after a lesser film would have given up. Among its lovely images, there’s the distant New York skyline seen beyond a Queens cemetery, a sight familiar to anyone who’s ever driven into town. There are the resigned glances of terminal patients in hospice. Mostly, we take in the exquisite face of Lupita Nyong’o as Sam, a young person in the prime of life stricken with cancer, who carries the unfairness of her situation just below the surface.

Sirens and fighter-jet shrieks ease their way into the sound mix, as they must in any prequel to 2018’s civilization-ending “A Quiet Place” and 2020’s more-of-the-same “A Quiet Place Part II.” But even as smoke and white ash fill the air (best to leave those Sept. 11 memories at home) and pissed-off creatures rampage like cattle down the city’s glass and steel canyons, there’s an unusual commitment to the darker fringes of postapocalyptic moviemaking. It’s less “Furiosa” and more “The Road.”

Sam is already prepared to die, lending the film an impressively bleak tone and sparing us the rote machinations of hardy-band-of-survivors plotting. All she wants to do is walk — very quietly — approximately 120 blocks north from Chinatown to Harlem, where she can scarf the last slices of pizza from Patsy’s before such delicacies become ancient history.

Joseph Quinn in the movie “A Quiet Place: Day One.”

(Gareth Gatrell / Paramount Pictures)

It’s a refreshing, near-radical concept to build a studio film around, and as Sam sets off, a tote bag on her arm and her black-and-white support cat Frodo beside her, you may be reminded of that other woman-and-feline survival story, “Alien,” stripped to the bone. (One also wonders, glumly, how NYC’s thousands of dogs fared with these tetchy sound-averse invaders.)

The person pulling all this off is director-screenwriter Michael Sarnoski, last seen evincing a recognizably human performance from Nicolas Cage as a crumpled, broken chef in “Pig,” which was also about facing a kind of personal catastrophe. (He’s now made two of the most downbeat foodie films in a row.) Sarnoski, who wrote the story with original creator John Krasinski, does fine enough by the James Cameron-like action sequences that probably were mandated by the powers that be: chase sequences in flooded subway tunnels — yuck — and abandoned landmarks.

But he’s stronger on personal moments, such as the finest take of Djimon Hounsou’s career, consumed in spiraling guilt and choking back a scream after accidentally killing someone for panicking too loud. There’s also a business-suited Brit (Joseph Quinn, last seen shredding to Metallica in “Stranger Things”) who only wants to join Sam on her pizza quest. With a minimum of words, we somehow understand that he’s devoted way too much of his time on the planet to not connecting with other human beings, and he may only get this one day to make up for it.

You can take or leave a subplot about Sam’s writing career and thwarted dreams. For this viewer, there’s more poetry in her stopping at an abandoned bookstore, as we all would do, picking up a used paperback (fittingly, Octavia E. Butler’s 1987 sci-fi novel “Dawn,” which you sense she has read) and sniffing the pages: a history captured in a scent. She too is savoring humanity’s last vestiges. This is a film that seems to know a lot about future psychology. May we never know such mournfulness outside of an ambitious summer blockbuster.

‘A Quiet Place: Day One’

Rating: PG-13, for terror and violent content/bloody images

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: In wide release June 28.

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