What a Quiet Place: Day One does with deafness

A Quiet Place: Day One starring Lupita Nyong’o has released its latest teaser, and it has the deaf community talking about the earlier films’ representations of deafness – and major plot holes.

With the new trailer for A Quiet Place: Day One, out this month, many moviegoers – particularly among the deaf community like myself – are remembering the moment about five years ago when the alien-apocalypse original, A Quiet Place (2018), hit theaters and told us that sound could kill us. The film follows the suspenseful trials of the Abbott family, with parents played by John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, who survive the alien invasion in large part because their daughter, Regan, is deaf. Because of her, they know American Sign Language (ASL), and because of ASL, they are able to hunker down in their “quiet place” and remain alive a year and a half after Day One of the invasion. And, as it turns out, Regan has a superpower besides knowing and sharing a silent language: She also has a cochlear implant (CI), which staves off the creatures by emitting unbearable feedback.

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The film was, for the most part, lauded for several reasons: One, it boasted a $50m (£39,591,400) opening. Two, it starred an actual deaf actress (Millicent Simmonds) playing a deaf character who was central to the plot. And three, the film wasn’t didactic or preachy about the value of deaf culture and its language. Instead, it made deafness gently accessible for the hearing. The ASL was subtitled, many scenes were completely silent to give the deaf person’s point of view, and, perhaps most importantly, the film introduced audiences to the cochlear implant, an assistive hearing device used by approximately 737,000 deaf people worldwide (almost 185,000 in the US and 12,000 in the UK).   

(Credit: Alamy/Paramount Pictures)

(Credit: Alamy/Paramount Pictures)

For hearing audiences who had always wondered what secrets the flying hands of Deaf people in conversation held, the film was a potentially revelatory experience. For d/Deaf/HoH audiences, including my son (a CI user) and me, it was thrilling to have ASL and a strong deaf character in the spotlight. As Simmonds said in a We Live interview, it is “important that [deaf] kids see themselves represented on screen.” Also, the flipping of subjectivity – frequently placing the hearing audience “between the ears” of a deaf character, into a position of ongoing, silent vigilance – made A Quiet Place a truly deaf-centric and deaf-positive movie.

That said, deaf reviewers have pointed out niggling inconsistencies in the film, many of them deafness-related. For example: Deaf people are not silent in real life, nor are they all “magic lipreaders” aka experts – to borrow from the late John S. Schuchman in his book Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry. Additionally, the ASL in the films isn’t “real” ASL – it’s more like SEE (Signed Exact English). Plus, Regan wears her CI even when it may no longer work: CIs need charging or batteries, and we never see this addressed on-screen.

Most of these errors may seem trivial, but there is one that is certainly major to the plot: The fact that a CI device does not, in real life, make sound. Of any kind. Hearing aids emit feedback – CIs do not. In other words, one of the pivotal plot points in the film – that the CI-as-weapon weakens the monsters by making noise – doesn’t hold water.

A Quiet Place 2 (2021) was also a success, as the first post-Covid-19-lockdown film to make more than $100m at the US and Canada box office. This sequel provides audiences with some backstory in the form of a flashback to the Abbott’s “Day one,” after which the main storyline tracks Regan, now ostensibly the central hero of the story, along with her sidekick Emmett (Oscar nominee Cillian Murphy), as they seek potential safety on an island Regan discovers, ironically, from a radio broadcast. In the end, just as in AQP 1, the thing that banishes the “monster” – the only hope for going back to normal, to a state of “hearing-ness” or a non-quiet place – is the screech of Regan’s cochlear implant. The last shot of the film is, in fact, one of the lone implant, dangling by its magnet before the radio microphone, as it transmits its power nationwide.

So, while A Quiet Place 2 (AQP 2) maintains and develops the centrality and agency of a deaf character played by a deaf person, which was established in the first film, it does not, in the end, do enough for deaf representation. Though the Regan of AQP 2 is a “steely,” brilliant deaf person with signing and lipreading superpowers, she still isn’t the hero. The ultimate “hero” is still the implant – the hero is still technology. The scriptwriters still needed Regan to wield the implant (one she didn’t really want, and one that in reality would make no noise), in order to restore the world to normalcy.

Does the positive representation in the Quiet Place films outweigh the flubs? If the priority is well-written, well-acted, entertaining action movies with a strong deaf heroine, then the answer could be yes. If the priority is a realistic picture of the lived experience of most of the 430m people worldwide with hearing loss, then the answer would be no. Then again, can any movie – particularly one in the inventive genres of Sci-Fi or Horror – provide a completely accurate representation of a lived experience?

Given all of this, what awaits viewers in the new prequel for the series, A Quiet Place: Day One (which will be released in US theatres on 28 June)? Who is the hero/ine, Regan or her implant? Or, as the sound designers for AQP 2 told Headliner, is it the phenomenon of sound itself that was “the central character in the film”? If we are to believe the tagline for Day One, “Hear how it all began,” the franchise might be giving up its attempts at deaf representation to hone in on sound itself as the main character.

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