A Quiet Place is the sort of film that doesn't leave nearly enough buttons unbuttoned and loose ends unknotted that you would assume it had to have a sequel, while also leaving enough room for a sequel that it would never feel like they were forcing one out just for the sake of business. And even though the obvious main pretext for A Quiet Place, Part II is the rather jaw-dropping return on investment that the first film represented, I would go so far as to say that it doesn't feel like writer-director John Krasinski was just forcing it out. It is the sturdiest, most classical kind of sequel: one that basically does the same things, but does them in a somewhat different order, and with different emphases, and adds new narrative wrinkles to make it seem like the universe where the story takes place is larger than it was last time. Indeed, while I would maintain that the specific strengths and weaknesses of A Quiet Place and A Quiet Place, Part II are different, sometimes substantially so, my impulse is to say that the two films end up so very close in quality and effect that it's hard to rank them, or even think of them as two separate objects.

It doesn't matter where we left off, since the new film rewinds all the way to beginning: "Day 1", as a title card in stark white on black tells us, the day that the Earth was visited by a race of horribly toothy, slimy alien quadrupeds that have neither a sense of sight nor of smell, but man alive can they ever hear. And for a nice long stretch, the film languidly, and then suddenly not languidly at all, recaps what happened when the residents of a drowsy small town in Appalachia realised what the hell was happening, right in the middle of a little league game. If there's an actual reason for this opening, other than to get Krasinski back in for an appearance of the since-deceased Lee Abbott, I'm not entirely sure what; maybe to get new viewers up to speed fast, although A Quiet Place was able to get us up to speed pretty damn quick. Regardless, it's quite a strong sequence, the best thing in Part II, even, with the fuzzy yellows of Polly Morgan's cinematography giving us a wonderful vibe of laid-back, low-stakes summertime ease that is very horribly interrupted by the cacophonous series of car and foot races that Krasinski stages mostly in hectic long takes. Every now and then, the din is dropped out with a horrible lurch, as the film subjectively shifts over to Lee's deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and we're just trapped with an empty, agonising pure silence. The film does a pretty great job of yanking us around through all sorts of different moods, in fact, and by time it executed the first of what turns out to be a great many laboriously razzle-dazzly scene transitions that are almost but not quite graphic matches, A Quiet Place, Part II had already started shredding my nerves quite effectively.

Some 460-odd days later, the film drops us right about the instant where its predecessor left off: the living Abbotts - Regan, her mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), her brother Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a wee tiny newborn - have just been obliged to leave their safe hidey hole, which has been fatally compromised in defending off some of the things. Regan has determined, using her dad's various pieces of equipment and maps, that another human survivor exists high on a ridge some distance away, so that's where they head first. Unfortunately, the survivor in question is wily and paranoid enough to have laid out a great many traps, one of which mangles Marcus's foot badly enough that the family has to stop whether it's safe or not, and whether or not their new host, a friend of Lee's from back in the before times named Emmett (Cillian Murphy), is at all happy with this arrangement. Regan is still feeling the drive to realise her father's dreams of finding someplace truly safe, however, and a radio broadcast gives her the clues she needs, or thinks she needs, to find a human settlement that the aliens can't get to. So she marches off into the wild, followed with extreme reluctance by Emmett, while Evelyn, Marcus, and the baby stay behind and try very hard not to get eaten.

That takes us through most of the material where I'd be happy to say that A Quiet Place, Part II genuinely bests its predecessor. It's all the same gimmick, for the most part, but Krasinski is a more confident filmmaker than he was back then, and the execution of the gimmick is mostly stronger; also, while killing Lee and replacing him with the nervous, untrustworthy Emmett means this no longer has the core of domestic coziness that gave A Quiet Place whatever amount of "heart" it had, it lets the film have more complicated character dynamics and arcs that are substantially more layered than just "I have a family and I wish to protect them". So it's better as drama, at least.

Also, the film doesn't have to muck around doing world-building, and I think it's not a coincidence that the moment Part II starts to decide that it needs to be about more than just terrified people feuding silently while hideous beasts stalk the woods around them (we see a lot more of the aliens in this film, which I gather is a point of contention for some viewers; I don't see that the series was ever going to get the horror-thriller vibe of the first half of the first movie back, so leaning into action-thriller by making the monsters more of a concrete presence feels fine to me), that is also the moment where it starts to feel like it's losing the thread of whatever it's doing. This happens first during a somewhat labored sequence where the Other Survivors Emmett has spoken off in hushed, horrified tones show up, and don't turn out to be very interesting; it becomes completely cluttered and hung-up on world building the instant that Emmett wakes up on the island that Regan has identified as being the source of the radio broadcast. Part of this is that Krasinski's decision to split his ensemble into two has knocked all the balance out of the film, and so in order to keep Blunt and Jupe in the film at all, he and editor Michael P. Shawver engage in some very strenuous cross-cutting that relies far too much on absurdly contrived and over-thought visual echoes between the two groups. Part of it is simply that this series if a tension-generating machine, and slowing things down for elaborate storytelling can't help but get in the way of the elegance of that machine.

Still, when the film works, it works very well: there are multiple airtight setpieces in the first half, including a humdinger of a shot of Regan on an abandoned train car where a stubborn shallow depth of field, mixed in with the subjective sound design, gives us a gut-wrenching look into how limited her awareness of her surroundings can be. Marco Beltrami's score is happily much less intrusive than it was last time; there's still too much music for a film predicated on silence, but when it shows up, it's generally more carefully built around the tension rather than slopped over it. A Quiet Place, Part II makes modest promises, and it keeps them: more of what worked in A Quiet Place, with a distinctly broader view of what humans have been up in this deathly silent post-apocalypse that makes it feel "bigger" even though it still keeps itself to a wonderfully concise 97 minutes. So concise, in fact, that it has decided not to resolve its story at all, and leave all of that for a third movie. And boy, did that choice leave me in a sour mood in the last seconds of the movie. But I guess I can't whine that the film prioritises storytelling over "wow" moments of chaotic suspense, and then be pissy that it decides to end by focusing on suspense and telling the story it can go fuck off.