One of the opening scenes of A Quiet Place, the new horror film that’s a legitimate box office phenomenon, looks like a shot from a hip-but-wholesome Instagram influencer. It could even be the illustration of Gwyneth Paltrow’s weeknight dinner tips. First, a whole freshwater fish, surrounded by glossy green leaves and plumes of steam, emerges from an underground smoke pit, where it’s been gently roasting over smoldering coals. Then the scene cuts to a family of four sitting around a table. Before them, a spread of harvest-hued roasted vegetables and that same fish, arranged on plates made from what looks to be huge, deep green cruciferous leaves. The burlap tablecloth and colorful placemats could have come from Pier 1, and the rustic wooden drinking vessels might be straight off Etsy. They hold hands for a brief prayer and then dig in.
It only takes a moment to register that something is deeply wrong. There is no clink of cutlery against ceramic, or chit-chat about the characters’ days. No music playing in the background, or knives cracking through crusty loaves of bread. Instead, the four diners remain completely silent, communicating by sign language when required, and taking pains to not even pour their water too loudly. The charming tablecloths and placemats deaden the sound of every action to the point where almost nothing registers at all.
This is the Instagram-less, Goop-free world that John Krasinski has built in his new thriller. The film, which he wrote, directed, and stars in alongside real-life wife Emily Blunt, is set only a few years in the future against a post-apocalyptic landscape in which carnivorous, alpha-predator aliens have wiped out the majority of the human race. The creatures hunt using sound, and those who have survived have done so by ensuring that their whole lives are conducted in absolute silence.
The myriad ways in which everyday activities generate sound are constantly brought to the viewer’s attention. Krasinski highlights just how noisily we move through the world by showing the pains that characters must now take to avoid doing that. Walkways are marked by trails of soft sand to prevent errant footfalls, and the small metal Monopoly tokens have been replaced by felt facsimiles.
But it’s Krasinski’s complete reimagining of the food system in this new world that is most impressive.
At first glance, a meal of fish and fresh vegetables seems almost luxurious, particularly in a dystopian setting, where we are accustomed to plotlines revolving around scarcity and desperation. But given the circumstances, it is entirely possible that the family in A Quiet Place will have to eat a version of this same dinner for every meal, forever.
For the film’s characters, fish is the only reliable source of animal protein because the boom of a gunshot means instant death for the hunter. (And, as a scene in which a scuttling raccoon is snatched up by an alien indicates, it’s doubtful there’s much game left, anyway.) Beef, pork, and even eggs are out, as raising animals is an inherently noisy endeavor. Only fish, which slip silently through the water and can be caught using quiet traps, are available to the hungry survivors.
Nor can they rely on pre-apocalypse leftovers to save them. In a scene which is almost a requirement of post-apocalyptic films at this point, A Quiet Place opens in a ransacked drugstore, panning across the empty aisles and debris left behind by panicked looters. The usual relief that catastrophe survivors find in packaged and canned goods is denied them here; a can opener grinding against aluminum will rip through the silence as surely as a bullet. Even the produce that the family can eat is limited by circumstance, not to mention geography. Fresh, crisp foods like carrots and apples are nothing more than giant, neon arrows for the aliens.
Many end-of-civilization stories depict a gutted food chain, from the grim insect farms of Blade Runner: 2049 to the bleak descriptions of the characters’ desperation to ward off hunger in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The availability of food is almost always addressed in these scenarios, but less common is an exploration of the physical act of eating in these worlds. Works like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles sometimes hypothesize that food delivery methods will change, often to become more efficient through pills or Soylent-esque nutritional goop. (And the name Soylent is, of course, a reference to another apocalyptic film.) In A Quiet Place, though, the very preparation of a meal suddenly becomes a life-or-death scenario.
With the discovery of the aliens’ hunting method, seen blared across the headlines of the newspapers lining Krasinski’s conspiracy theorist-esque basement command center, many of the most common methods of cooking disappear. Frying and sautéing, with all the accompanying snap-crackle-and-popping, are no longer options. The family uses a signal fire to communicate with other survivors, so it seems that roasting and boiling are still on the table, somewhat expanding their food choices — soft carrots are an option where fresh carrots are not. One scene from the film depicts a cellar full of preserved fruits and vegetables, but it’s unclear whether those were put up before or after the invasion. It seems unlikely that boiling glass jars and their accompanying rattle against the metal pot, along with the bright pop that accompanies opening a vacuum-sealed lid, are activities that the survivors can safely participate in often, if at all.
All of these calculations take place before the family even sits down to eat. And once they do, there’s still the issue of enjoyment. And from a neuroscientific as well as a psychological perspective, it’s very likely that the pleasure the survivors typically get from eating would be greatly diminished.
“Our normal eating experiences are highly multimodal, with all sorts of sensory inputs from the ambient noise in the room to the visual information of the décor shaping our preferences and perception of what’s on our plates,” says Daniel Wesson, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Florida, where he also works with the world-renowned Center for Smell and Taste. “This means that flavor and our enjoyment of what we are eating isn’t simply about what comes into our mouths or noses.”
One potential option for the survivors besides cooking all of their vegetables is to consume them slightly past their peak, when the softer structure makes for quieter bites. But according to Simran Sethi, whose book Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love deals in part with the connection between food and the senses, the silence could begin to affect survivors on a primal level. “The sound food makes is one of the hidden ways that our body recognizes a particular thing as something that we can eat and that’s safe,” she says, referring to noises like the crunch of a ripe piece of fruit. “The absence of sound means that people might not actually know in a deep, ancestral, pre-evolutionary way whether something is safe to eat.”
Of the many accommodations the characters of A Quiet Place must make to survive in their new reality, it is the psychological ones that might be the most difficult to reconcile. Timothy McClintock, a scientist who studies the neurobiology of flavor and founding member of the International Society of Neurogastronomy, explains how their relationship to food would be affected:
We learn to like or dislike flavor sensations based on our experiences, so those people in a post-apocalyptic world who eat familiar foods that have been modified to be consumed silently will experience cognitive dissonance in the absence of the sounds that they have learned to associate with eating these foods. At first, they’ll find silent versions of familiar foods unsatisfying. However, many would eventually retrain themselves about how food should “taste.”
It’s possible, even likely, that those who are left at the end of the film would eventually adapt to their circumstances. It would become second nature to boil away the satisfying snap of an asparagus stalk, or to bite into a salad a day too late to avoid hearing their teeth gnash through the firm lettuce. Indeed, movie audiences are suddenly becoming more aware of the noises they generate and modifying their own behavior accordingly.
Watching the final survivors fight to reclaim their home from the invaders, viewers do not get the sense that they are battling simply for the right to survive. They’re also fighting for the right to scream, bite, listen, and taste.
Leigh Kunkel is a food and travel writer from Chicago who loves cocktails, television, and dogs.
Editor: Greg Morabito