Hello, everyone! Yesterday I saw Aladdin and I actually thought it was an entertaining movie, but why would I write a vaguely pleasant review of a film I liked when I could excoriate a film I despised? So today, I shall take the more enjoyable route and review The Silence, a Netflix film that manages to squander all the good will of the trendy post-apocalypse genre titles like Bird Box and A Quiet Place in only 90 minutes.
Synopsis: After a spelunking accident releases a horde of blind carnivorous super-bat hybrids into the above-ground world, Americans realize their only hope to survive the hordes of fatal bat attacks is to practice complete silence. Ally, a teenager who has been deaf since age 13, is used to silence and realizes that the best way for her family to survive is to leave the chaotic suburbs and retreat to the woods. As the family adapts to their new life in a silent society, they are faced with an even more sinister evil than vicious bat-things: a fertility obsessed cult.
My take: Bird Box was a stupid film, but at least it featured some fine acting. Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, and Trevante Rhodes managed to turn an illogical post-apocalyptic film where the characters must drive blindfolded into a movie that was a tragic character-driven narrative. The Quite Place was on a completely different level than Bird Box, starring a cast of compelling actors and revolving around a narrative that was crisp, intelligent, and emotional. Let’s just say that The Silence tries to be both of these films and fails miserably.
What’s surprising about The Silence is that should be a lot better than both of those other films. Based on a well-reviewed 2015 novel, featuring such A-Listers as Kiernan Shipka and Stanley Tucci, and directed by the DP of The Conjuring, one of the most popular horror movies of the 2000s, The Silence had everything it needed to be a successful and well-crafted entry into the post-apocalyptic genre. The problem is both in the timing of the release and the crafting of the movie itself.
I almost feel sorry for The Silence, because in terms of its release it had the cards stacked against it. Both this film and A Quiet Place were shot in 2017 and both were slated to be released in early 2018, but due to financial problems, The Silence’s original distributor Global Road Entertainment sold the distribution rights to Netflix and the release was pushed back to April 2019.
Perhaps this wouldn’t have been such an issue if AQP and The Silence weren’t, at least on the surface, very similar films. Both feature a deaf character as one of the main protagonists, both center around a post-apocalyptic world besieged by deadly creatures who hunt by sound, and both take place in a rural part of the United States. When AQP first came out, there was a lot of rumbling that it was heavily influenced by Tim Lebbon’s novel The Silence and some people even said that director John Krasinksi plagiarized the plot, but a deeper look at the matter reveals that AQP‘s original screenwriters were developing the plot as early as 2013, two years before The Silence was published.
Once you actually watch both films, however, it’s clear that AQP and The Silence take different approaches to a similar plot, and that AQP’s successes makes The Silence’s failures even more evident. AQP is more of a family drama that happens to be set in a post-apocalyptic world. With a few changes, the script could easily have taken place in war-time, or during a natural disaster, or during a political coup. What makes AQP a compelling drama is not necessarily the monsters but the idea of a family trying to protect each other in a dangerous and unpredictable world. It also helped that John Krasinski tried to craft a visually suspenseful film with a unique soundscape.
The Silence, on the other hand, isn’t sure whether it wants to be a post-apocalyptic story about the fall of humanity, or a family drama like AQP. I’ve never read the book, so I can’t comment on the narrative cohesion of the original story, but the film really fails to make you care about either element of the film. Both Shipka and Tucci are normally great actors, but even they can’t save the weak script of the film.
It starts off in a bad place with an expositional voice-over, which is never a good sign, and then gradually worsens from there. One of the main problems I had was the weird inconsistency with how Ally and her family communicate through sign language. Ally was not born deaf, so she did grow up being able to hear and hear herself speak. Once she is deaf, however, there seems to be no change in the way she speaks. I was curious on the difference in speaking ability between a hearing person and a person who has post-lingual deafness, and the light research I did showed that many people who become deaf later in life can speak as comprehensibly as a hearing person, but that a lot of them face difficulties with moderating their tone and volume since they can no longer hear themselves. Ally showed no sign of this. If the script did not state she was deaf, I would have no idea from her voice or actions besides the occasional use of ASL.
Speaking of the use of ASL, the film does an inaccurate and inconsistent job of properly representing ASL. The film got into some hot water upon release after director John Leonetti said that Shipka “learned to sign for the film, and now she’s flawless, like she’s been signing her entire life. She seems to have an almost innate sense of what it’s like being a deaf person.” There was a lot of criticism from the Deaf community including Deaf spokespeople like Nyle DiMarco who pointed out that it’s pretty much impossible to learn ASL that quickly because it’s as comprehensive and immersive as any other language and requires just as much time and commitment as it would take to be fluent in a language like Japanese or French. Apart from the problems with casting a hearing actor like Shipka who is clearly not fluent in ASL, the film also employs lip-reading so that the other actors like Tucci can speak most of their lines instead of signing them.
The fact that Ally can lip-read almost everything her family says is unrealistic. According to studies, only 30-45 percent of spoken English can be understood through lip-reading, so it’s implausible that Ally, who has only recently become deaf, can understand every complexity of spoken conversation in the film. Unlike AQP, which casted an actual Deaf actor and used proper sign language, The Silence makes no real attempt to incorporate a Deaf character into the plot. Ally’s deafness is more of a quirk in this movie than any significant part of her character. She interacts with her family in the world just like a hearing person would and doesn’t face any unique struggles because of her deafness. Her deafness is so insignificant to the plot that she could have been a hearing character with hardly a change to the script.
The illogical conditions of Ally’s made-for-television deafness are not the only examples of the film’s poor grip on reality. Again, I haven’t read the book, so I can’t talk about how well the plot works in the original story, but I found the main plot of the movie to be really silly and unconvincing. The main fault lies in the creatures of doom: the vesps, named after the Spanish word for wasps, avispa, because of the way they swarm. The vesps are kind of a mix between bats and a Xenomorph, the terrifying creature from Alien. They’re blind, have sharp teeth like piranhas, and their favorite way to hunt is a sound-initiated feeding frenzy. My problem with the vesps is that they’re just not scary. They are too fallible to be scary. They’re small, easily tricked, and can be killed with bullets or bludgeoned to death by sharp objects. Sure they’re vicious and fatal, but they’re not so deadly that they can’t be defeated by simple human adaptation. Ally even reaches this realization at the end of the move when she shoots a vesp dead with an arrow. It seemed really illogical to me that all of humanity would devolve into absolute chaos because of some sharp-teethed flying things.
Here’s what would have happened in reality: people would get their AK-47s, because this is ‘Murica, and shoot those things dead. Some people would die, but the rest of humanity would invest in bullet proof clothing and resume their daily lives. After a few months of planned military and police campaigns, the vesps would be eradicated like any other pesky pest of history and peace would resume. Or maybe we would just poison them or gas them like we do to other animals we don’t like. I mean, we got rid of sabertooth tigers and wooly mammoths and we’re getting close to getting rid of mosquitos. Humans are really, really good at getting rid of things we don’t like, no matter how sharp their teeth are.
There’s also the question of what kind of noises these vesps are attracted to. In AQP there was an attempt to create internal logic. The aliens were attracted to very loud man-made noises, like the unnatural keening of a toy spaceship or a baby crying. They didn’t care about footsteps or leaves crunching or waterfalls or people whispering. This makes sense. In The Silence, there’s too much variation for internal logic. The vesps might attack when they hear the rattling of bells or a dog barking, but they’re not swarming around a traffic jam. They’re also attracted by the rattling of a snake. Does this mean the vesps are massacring rattlesnakes? What about birds? What about bumblebees? Do they attack a tree if they hear the sound of falling leaves? What about a burbling brook? The point is that there’s no logic to when and why these vesps attack. It only seems that they attack when it’s convenient for the plot. See: the scene where a character gets in a very loud car accident and the vesps only show up at the last moment to create suspense. So if the main horror in this movie is the vesps, excuse me for not being scared of some dumb sky-piranhas.
Even though the whole world (seemingly) is up in flames, Ally still has access to wifi to contact her boyfriend Rob. That makes no sense, but don’t think about it too much, because nothing in this world makes sense. Once the evil cult comes, the movie dips into real batshit territory. The cult wants Ally and her family to join them because she’s “fertile,” but of course Stanley Tucci refuses, as anyone should when asked to join a fertility cult. This leads to an inevitable showdown with lots of drama and stabbing and mute tongue-less girls and ringing phones. Did you ever think there would be a climax in a movie where the main suspense comes from the obnoxious ringing of iPhone alarms? Neither did I. I wish it never happened. In the end, everyone survives and they make it to the Refuge, which has conveniently sprung up overnight, and Ally and her boyfriend Rob become the new Katniss and Gale shooting vesps in the cold. It’s all very pointless and silly and a lot less satisfying than either AQP or even Bird Box.
So why did The Silence fail so hard? Chalk it up to a bad script, a bad representation of a Deaf character, and lazy craftsmanship. Also blame it on the inevitability of diminishing returns in an over-saturated genre. But most of all, blame it on A Quiet Place. Without that shining beacon to compare it to, The Silence would have been just another mediocre post-apocalypse film. Now it will be known at best as A Quiet Place’s inferior sibling and at worst as a lazy remix. In sum, skip The Silence and twiddle your thumbs until we get the sequel to A Quiet Place. At least that won’t have any sky-piranhas.