The Silence (15)
Director: John R. Leonetti
Review: David Stephens
Elephant in the room time again (Yes, there have been a lot of those lately). “The Silence” comes five months after the Netflix release “Bird Box”, the surprisingly popular apocalyptic film where survivors must sacrifice sight to beat a preternatural menace to humanity… and it’s an apocalyptic film where a family must learn to live in silence to outwit a preternatural menace to humanity… just like the hugely popular cinema smash “A Quiet Place” in fact. Okay, that’s an easy target, and is a somewhat unfair (if accurate) summary of this new Netflix Original. Not that it’s stopping most reviews that you’ll see for the film. However “The Silence” is based on the 2015 bestseller from Tim Lebbon, the award winning British horror and dark fantasy writer, and easily predates AQP. It’s just one of those things and comparisons are unavoidable, although it’s really closer to “Birdbox” in style and content. It’s directed by John R. Leonetti, who helmed the first spinoff in the “Conjuring” universe “Annabelle”, “Wish Upon”, and… err… “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”. Filming and casting began back in May 2017 (again, before AQP’s release), and it stars two of the main cast from “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”; namely Kiernan Shipka (Sabrina herself) and Miranda Otto (Zelda) as Mother & Daughter characters. The prolific Stanley Tucci rounds out the cast as the protective patriarch of the family. The film is now available for streaming on most territories where Netflix is available, so YGROY takes a look to see if this tale of killer bats is going to cause a flap or not.
The 90 minute film wastes no time at all it setting up its premise. A cave research team break into an underground cavern and accidentally release a hitherto unknown species of bat upon the surface world. (NB: Wasn’t that the plot for “Piranha 3D” as well?). Meanwhile the unsuspecting Andrews family are going about their normal routine. Eldest daughter Ally (Shipka) has been learning to live with hearing loss for three years after a car accident, so Mum Kelly (Otto) and Dad Hugh (Tucci) use sign language and kid gloves to deal with the situation. Within a matter of days however, countless flocks of the aforementioned bats are “infecting” major US cities and cutting them off from communication. It doesn’t take long for society to breakdown as these “Vesps” (named after wasps for their swarming tendencies) start attacking humans. Attracted to (and hunting by) sound, it’s fortuitous that the Andrews can communicate silently and this actively helps their escape from the city. But in this new dangerous world they must avoid attracting the Vesps as well as the adapting survivors who could be just as deadly…
“Silence” actually attracted a bit of criticism during filming for casting the audibly unimpaired Shipka as the main character, whereas AQP actually went the other direction when they cast young actress Millicent Simmonds in her role. To her credit though, apparently the “Sabrina” actress learned American Sign Language fluently, which is used prominently throughout the film. (NB: In fact, you may even miss some “dialogue” unless you have subtitles on... as weird as that sounds). Since we’re at the start of the whole “invasion” as it takes place (in a similar way to “Bird Box”), we can see the first reactions of the phenomena as it starts to grip America. One very effective sequence has us see the emergency transmissions on TV through the POV of Ally, and illustrates just how confusing that would be. This is followed up by some pretty cool visuals of cities burning in the distance whilst the dark swarm of bats swirls above, and the way they collectively group together on pylons (a la’ Hitchcock’s “The Birds”). And whilst the CGI isn’t exactly stunningly realistic, at least the Vesps look the part and provide some genuinely believable menace as they trap people in cars or swarm over bodies. But unfortunately… this is where you start to struggle to continue to say nice things about the film.
Some write-ups are delighting in the fact that the screenplay was written by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, who have worked on recent “Mockbusters” like “The Day the Earth Stopped” and “Titanic 2”, using that as a metaphorical hammer to drive an unimpressed nail into the script. Considering the cast in place, you do feel curiously unengaged by everything that’s going on, and there’s no real sense of scale. It all feels a bit rushed to a certain extent. After all the 90 minutes encapsulates the decimation of Earth, a long escape bid, a period of hiding, another source of threat, and a denouement. We haven’t read the novel and can’t compare the depiction of how things go to Hell in a handbasket, but it does feel curious that the US literally falls into decline almost instantaneously and literally no other countries are mentioned. It’s probably due to the severe streamlining of the plot, but a mention of the bats crossing the Atlantic or dropping guano on Mexico would have helped. The sudden-appearing barely-explained cult of “The Hushed” is fumbled quite badly as well, and you have absolutely no clue as to their beliefs or where their dangerous obsession with Ally comes from. Sadly the collective of Tucci, Shipka, and Otto are never really given the tools or time to work any magic to give depth to the characters. You know the parents love their kids, but that’s about it. Sacrifices and emotional decisions just don’t have that required heft as a result. What is a bit shocking is that it barely seems to matter that Ally is deaf. Yes, it works as a catalyst for them knowing sign language as a survival tool, and it makes her a target for a cult. But Ally’s statement that “she knows how to live in silence” and is now ipso facto the most important member of the family, just doesn’t ring true in the context and leaves the dénouement on fairly shaky ground.
In retrospect you really feel that with a few changes and extra time, it could have made for a uniquely thrilling ride without being seen as poor cousin to AQP (or “Bird Box”). Whilst the ongoing threat of the Vesps is nicely imagined, the humourless and breakneck pace of the narrative quashes any real enjoyment. Even “Bird Box” cracked a couple of jokes at the beginning! There’s even a bizarre standalone scene on an underground train, which depicts characters you’ll never see again, making a difficult decision regarding a screaming baby and the mother (you can probably guess where that goes). The reason for it existing is understandable (human survival instincts are a bitch!), but it feels like it’s been sloppily edited in from a different movie altogether. Some scenes come achingly close to being inspired; the trapped-in-a-car moment, the character who has a “suicide bomb” made from ringing cell phones, the snake in the sewer pipe. But it never quite makes the mark, and some scenes become unintentionally funny (car drivers still incessantly honk their horns when you think they might recognise the danger of that habit, someone legitimately protecting their home becomes instant bat-food). The genre aspect is pretty light as well, with just a few splashes of scarlet and a couple of skeletonized legs. It’s not irredeemably awful and has the odd moment to savour, but it’s still far below the film it should have been and is very likely to disappoint. Bat’s a shame…