From the loss of speech to the loss of sight, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (2018) both attained critical acclaim by shedding light on disabilities through post-apocalyptic thrillers. The films both forward a similar premise: they both take the perspective of a family navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape caused by unknown alien creatures, who use their near omnipotent strength to force humankind to adapt in order to avoid death. Due to the commercial success of both films, as well as the similar themes, scholars often compare the two films. For instance, Dea Iskandar’s (2020) comparative analysis on both film’s portrayal of motherhood deepens our understanding of family as both films portray a mother traversing a cruel and uncertain world, guiding her children for a slim chance of survival.
Seeing how the films could possibly be rife with comparisons, I look at how the films differ. A clear-cut difference can be seen in humankind’s adaptive methods. The creatures in A Quiet Place have hypersensitive hearing and hyperspeed, leading to humankind silencing themselves, forming a fully silenced environment devoid of speech. The creatures in Bird Box have an ability to drive humans to suicide at a mere sight of them, leading to humans donning blindfolds, adapting by blinding themselves against the unknown entity.
Both films seemingly forward a posthumanist mindset by portraying the families constantly escaping away from the creatures, delivering a message on humankind’s insignificance against an outer-world entity and their near omnipotent powers. The concept of agency is not centralised on humanity, but is ascribed onto the nonhuman, echoing Leif Sorenson’s (2018) “The Apocalypse is a Nonhuman Story” on how certain apocalyptic texts formulate a “constellation of human and nonhuman agencies”, exposing “the frailty of the human and its codependence on the nonhuman”. Yet, A Quiet Place ends by framing a different perspective from Bird Box. A Quiet Place ends with the characters discovering a weakness in the monsters, laying open the possibility of fighting back in the sequel and inspiring a more liberal humanistic perspective by putting humanity at the forefront. The ending recognises the value of humanity’s rights to liberty against the alien creatures, placing humans back at the centre of agency and alludes to the possibility of humanity gaining back control in the sequel. In contrast, Bird Box ends with the characters leaving the root cause of the apocalypse – the creatures – undealt with, finding peace in joining a school for the blind to survive. The ending conforms with the film’s posthumanistic narrative, having the agency of humans overshadowed by the agency ascribed to the creatures.
The obvious question would then be: why the difference in endings despite the similar premises? By doing a comparative analysis on A Quiet Place and Bird Box, I argue that the different resolution direction is shaped by the disparity in agency of both the nonhumans and humans. By examining how the creatures are represented in the two films, I seek to illuminate the difference in agency ascribed to them. Through examining the contrast between the loss of agency forced upon humanity—from the loss of speech to the loss of sight—I hope to clarify the difference in agency possessed by humans, showing that the different endings in both films reflect the different perspectives they hold on humanity’s agency.
Representational Materialisation and Dematerialisation
At a representational level in the films, one key difference viewers can see is that in A Quiet Place, the viewers get to see the creatures in a material form, as compared to Bird Box, where the creatures are unknown and never seen, taking an immaterial form in the minds of the viewers. The closest viewers get to see the creatures in Bird Box are the drawings done by raving heretics who make other humans look at the creature.
The drawings further substantiate the immaterial nature of the creatures in Bird Box as each of the drawings are different from one another.
The immaterial quality of the creatures in Bird Box could be reasoned to be Bier wanting us, the viewers, to experience the same blindness as the characters in the film. However, that reasoning would not explain why there was almost a scene included in the film where the creatures are shown in their material form. The scene was even filmed, but was cut out. The entire scene was described by Sandra Bullock (the main actress in the scene) to be “the stuff of surreal nightmares” (Quoted in Caulfield, 2019). It was not that Bier wanted the creature to be unknown; it was that somehow, the creatures were “a little more terrifying in theory than they were in practice”, and that “unveiling to viewers the [creatures’] appearance would take away their power” (Quoted in Caulfield, 2019). Bier further shared: “whatever those beings are, they tap into your deepest fear. […] I think to suddenly take upon a concrete shape in order to illustrate that, becomes weak. Where the conceit is really strong, trying to illustrate [the creatures] becomes almost meaningless” (Quoted in Caulfield, 2019).
Bier considered it “weak” to materialise the creatures, opting to tap into the fear of the unknown. As quoted from H.P Lovecraft in The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature, “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (Lovecraft 2012). Bier further uses this fear of the unknown by giving said creature near omnipotent power to drive any human who looks at it to suicide. The characters in the film experience the unknown in the form of forced blindness, whereas from the perspective as the audience, we experience the unknown in the form of the unseen and practically intangible entity. The immaterial nature of the creatures reflects the idea of posthumanism. These creatures are unknowable and beyond our, the viewers, and the protagonists’ current understanding. With the lack of understanding of the creatures, the protagonist can only run, without an opportunity to fight back. The agency ascribed to the humans is overshadowed by the agency ascribed to the creatures.
In contrast, Krasinki takes a different route in storytelling by slowly alluding to the creature, but not showing it in its entirety till the climax of the film. Krasinki took inspiration from Ridley Scott’s Alien, a cinema classic, learning the necessary techniques to build up the scare factor in A Quiet Place (Desta, 2018). By revealing the appearance of the unknown outer-world creatures, inserting flashes of the creatures in background shots, tension is built from the audience’s point of view.
It is only at the climax of the story that the audience finally gets to see the creature in all its glory.
The outer-world creatures in A Quiet Place take a material form. The viewers can see the creatures act and move even in brief flashes, staying consistent in appearance as compared to the creatures in Bird Box. There are even moments where the humans in the film take advantage of the creatures’ hypersensitive hearing to lure it away. By virtue of taking a material form, the creatures exist in our — the viewers — and the protagonists’ realm of understanding, giving rise to moments for them to fight back against the creatures. The centre of agency is wrestled back to the side of humanity as the film progresses since the protagonists gain further understanding of the creatures’ abilities, shifting from a posthumanist view of the post-apocalypse to a more liberal humanist view. The agency of the nonhuman creatures is instead overshadowed by the agency of humanity.
Hence, the representational materialisation and dematerialisation of the creatures’ in the two films presents us the difference in agency inscribed onto the nonhuman entities, providing a possible reason as to why films chose such different forms of resolutions.
Difference in Human Agency
To only look at the nonhuman agency would only be half the story; it is also important to examine the difference in the agency of humanity between the two films. If we were to look at human agency as humanity’s capacity to act, it would be crucial to look at the difference in sensory deprivation forced onto the humans in the films. The characters in A Quiet Place are forced to stay silent: they lose the ability to use speech to communicate, forming a nearly silenced environment that mimics a world experienced by deaf people. The characters in Bird Box are forced to don blindfolds: they lose the ability to see, mimicking a world experienced by blind people. In order to examine the difference in one’s capacity to act in each scenario, it is important to examine the difference between deafness and blindness in the real world.
A journal article collating the perspectives of medical students towards blindness and deafness concluded that the medical students viewed “blindness as a far worse disability than deafness” (Owoeye et al., 2007). The students viewed blindness as having an overall greater effect on education, social interactions, family relationships, and overall potential development than deafness (Owoeye et al., 2007). Based on the students findings, deafness has a worse impact on human agency than blindness.
One of the main impacts of deafness, as claimed by the World Health Organisation (“Deafness”, 2021), is the loss of the ability to communicate, which leads to “social isolation, loneliness and stigma”. However, the forced silence in A Quiet Place barely had any of the issues surfaced by the WHO. The characters in A Quiet Place do not lose as much agency through the use of sign language, having the loss of communication being offset by the apocalypse being all-encompassing.
All had to find other ways to communicate to accommodate their new silent environment. Due to the apocalyptic setting, instead of separating people from people, it instead connects them with a common “disability”, empowering the people despite the loss in ability to communicate through speech.
However, in Bird Box, the loss in agency is a lot more apparent. Blindness “separates peoples from things” as characters traverse difficult terrain blindfolded. The loss in agency is especially noticeable when the main protagonist rows a boat through a turbulent river with her two children to finally reach the safe haven.
In Bird Box, blindness negatively impacts peoples’ connection with each other as the heretics deliberately strip off blindfolds to revere the outer-world creatures. The fact that the heretics have the ability to see, dichotomised with the blindfolded characters, further juxtaposes the difference in agency between the seeing and the blind.
In the context of the films, human agency is more negatively impacted by blindness than silence. To begin with, The agency ascribed to the humans in A Quiet Place is higher compared to the humans in Bird Box.
How it all leads to The End
In A Quiet Place, the film ends with the characters discovering a method to counter the outer-world creatures, finding a way to stun one of them using sound frequencies from a hearing aid. Thus, giving the characters an opportunity to kill the creature. In Bird Box, the film ends with the characters finding a school for the blind to reside in —a place surrounded by people who were born blind. One finds a method to counter the outer-world creatures, while the other finds a place that avoids the outer-world creature.
Although both films show how the characters consistently escape from outerworld creatures in the narrative, affordances given to the characters in A Quiet Place enable them to fight back, putting the agency of humans back at the forefront against the nonhumans. In contrast, giving the characters in Bird Box the ability to deal with the creatures would have instead weakened the narrative. The narrative of the story forwards the characters’ loss of agency, constantly showing how the main characters evade rather than fight the creatures. With how society views blindness, the end seems to only naturally follow, as blindness seemingly has a greater impact on one’s ability to act.
Although A Quiet Place shifts from a posthumanist view of the post-apocalypse to a more liberal humanistic view, the shift follows from the entanglement of agencies between the nonhuman and humans, where humans never lost much agency against the nonhuman to begin with, giving them the opportunity to act. Bird Box instead conforms to a posthumanist view from start to finish, emphasising the frailty and futility of humanity’s struggle, having the agency of humanity overshadowed by the agency of the nonhumans.
By looking at the entanglement of agencies between the nonhuman and humans, it becomes clear as to why the resolutions following each of the films was as such. The end naturally follows from the narrative.
The incongruence between the liberal humanistic ending of A Quiet Place and the posthumanistic ending of Bird Box tells us the different perspective of humanity in the advent of nonhuman invasions. By resolving the incongruence between the two films’ resolutions, we find that agency of both the nonhuman and the human to be of utmost importance in the way the narrative leads to the different endings. By understanding how agency interconnects with the actions of the protagonists in the films, it allows for better understanding of human nature with regards to how we strive for survival.
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