A Quiet Place, 2018. Directed by John Krasinski.
A sci-fi horror flick, released to critical acclaim, containing a profound message about the dignity of human life that resonates deeply with Catholic social teaching? It doesn’t seem likely, but I think this is exactly what the film A Quiet Place, released last year, achieves.
In a dystopian future, the world has been invaded by monsters that consume any living creature in their path. We aren’t told where the monsters came from, or why, nor do we see the original attack and how it all unfolded (the film is set in the aftermath). But we do know that their major weakness is that they are blind, and have to rely on their highly developed and keen sense of hearing to find their prey. The film follows the story of one family of survivors as they live in virtual silence, hiding from the monsters on their run-down farm somewhere in rural North America.
In the first scene of A Quiet Place, the family are foraging for medicine and other supplies in an abandoned shop. The youngest child picks up a battery powered toy rocket ship, which he takes with him when they walk home, their feet bare to help them tread more quietly and thereby avoid attracting the monsters. Tattered remains of newspapers flap in the breeze, carrying reports of the initial attacks from the aliens. And then, as they begin to cross a bridge, the little boy presses the button on the toy rocket ship and it starts making a noise. Before his horrified parents can reach him to turn it off, one of the monsters appears and makes off with the child. In the blink of an eye, he is gone. The rest of the film is set some time after this devastating attack, when the mother (played by Emily Blunt) is pregnant again; in virtual silence, we watch as the family simultaneously grieves for their son and brother, and prepares for the arrival of the new baby.
Given the context, the mother’s pregnancy is just about as radical as you can get. It certainly prompts questions. Wasn’t it irresponsible to get pregnant under these circumstances? Wouldn’t it be better to terminate the pregnancy, given the fact that when the baby is born it will almost certainly get killed by the monsters as soon as it cries, endangering the mother and the rest of the family in the process?
Whether or not these are questions the family struggle with is unclear (there isn’t much dialogue in the film, after all). Worried as they are about their future and the safety of their family, we watch the parents navigate their dangerous existence with hope and creativity. This baby is clearly a beautiful and significant symbol of the possibility for a better future: not just for them but for the human race as a whole. They will do whatever it takes to make the birth as safe as possible.
As the film progresses and we see how carefully the family have prepared for the baby’s arrival, setting up signals to let everyone know when labour starts, and getting fireworks ready to create a noisy distraction from the mother’s yells during labour and the newborn’s cries after birth. They’ve made a special box with an oxygen mask where they can put the baby to muffle its cries when necessary; they’ve sound-proofed the basement as best they can. In short, the parents have used every ounce of creativity and every resource available to them in their limited circumstances to make this birth as safe as possible. While the prospect of what is about to happen is still utterly terrifying, there’s a defiance in their hope and in the way that they refuse to be dehumanised or to dehumanise others, despite the desperate situation in which they are prey to the animalistic attacks of the aliens.
So yes, in this sense A Quiet Place carries a remarkable pro-life message at its heart, whether its creators intended it or not. The unconscious message is that a baby in the womb is worth protecting, even when it seems unlikely or improbable that it will be able to survive; and, perhaps even more radically, even when it might endanger the lives of others. The odds are most certainly not in their favour, and yet they still see their unborn child as a child with unquestionable value, worth fighting for and protecting just like any of their other children.
But the idea of the dignity of human life goes even deeper than this. The film raises the question of what happens to human culture and relationships when our voices are effectively silenced. While this vision of an apocalyptic alternative reality has plenty of terrifying moments, it also carries an enduring sense of hope and optimism. Even when reduced to a minimal existence, humanity naturally creates beauty and culture around itself; these things are as necessary as water and food for our survival, the film suggests.
Despite the crisis around them, the family hold on to a sense of higher purpose in the face of potential despair and destruction. We see them holding hands to silently give thanks before their meal, and later playing Monopoly with small soft objects instead of the usual hard pieces. In one scene, the mother is encouraging her son to do his schoolwork, and we see a Shakespearean sonnet on the board behind them, the intonations marked—another sign of hope that one day they’ll be able to speak poetry out loud again. In another scene, the husband and wife share headphones and slow dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”. The flame of human culture is something that we must keep alight even in desperate times; art, play, our traditions and rituals, and our relationships with each other aren’t merely optional extras. They’re integral to our survival.
Ultimately, it is human ingenuity that provides a solution to the problem of the predatory aliens that haunt their lives. This life-saving creativity could not be kept alive in a culture that has forgotten itself, that has forgotten how to be human. It is hope and the determination not only to survive, but to make the life you’re fighting for worth living, that ultimately allows this family to triumph, in spite of their terrible losses.
Sophie Caldecott is a freelance writer and journalist living with her husband and two daughters in the South West of England on the edge of the moor.