Zombie-like invasion thrillers in the vein of A Quiet Place Part II are a kind of survivalist wish fulfillment—fantasies that normal power structures have been decimated to the point that radical self-reliance is essential to survival. We watch them in hope to feel, at least briefly, the surrogate thrill of life hanging in the balance—to simulate the conditions of a life our primitive brains are still very much optimized for. Perhaps surprisingly, one place you may find the machinations of surrogate power fulfillment best presented is in Ted Kaczynski’s infamous manifesto “Industrial Society and Its Future.”
While anti-technology emerged as the headline take on Ted’s paper, his views on power dynamics in the modern psyche are continually instructive as a lens by which to regard contemporary conservative ideology. As such, they also prove surprisingly useful in understanding the appeal and effect of survivalist and home-invasion media. Ted’s problem with contemporary society mirrors theories of Sigmund Freud and Herbert Marcuse—essentially that man is an aggressive animal none too far removed from the survival tendencies of his ancestors. He has a need to assert some power over his surroundings, to fulfill goals related to survival. Ted calls this the Power Process. Subsequently, the modern and urban world provides for man’s survival needs and sublimates his natural constructive/destructive urge into hierarchical power dynamics by which he is either the oppressor or the oppressed. If Ted is anti-tech, it’s much in the same sense as lit’s favorite libertarian H.D. Thoreau, who opined that men “become the tools of their tools.” This subjugation was Ted’s pet topic—his hell then, the office.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that Krasinski—John, that is—emerged from a decade of portraying a hemmed-in desk jockey bedeviled by the insolence of office to play gun-toting military types and a survivalist beardo, his now two-part-and-likely-to-be-three-part alien survivalist saga A Quiet Place displaying the trademark tropes of power fantasy media (family death, pathologized vulnerability, rogue justice). Further, could it also be merely coincidence that Chris Pratt, Krasinski’s goofy counterpart on NBC’s other cultural powerhouse office comedy Parks and Rec has emerged from the emasculation of the modern office comedy to tote a gun at the far reaches of the galaxy, wrangle velociraptors, and espouse conservative ideology in his free time? Why do moviegoers want to see their sardonic office pals make the leap to tough-guy roles? And why are these office cowboys leaning right?
A Quiet Place’s central premise is a monster movie wet dream. It’s quiet-or-die setup makes for some pretty thrilling scenes, but its core tension is derailed by thematic pursuit of the sanctity of the nuclear family. Of course, I’m talking about that baby. The moment it was clear that the film’s main couple would not do whatever they could in their power to end the pregnancy, the film became a bad referendum on abortion. Either you sided with the plucky couple to protect a fetus at what should have, with any level of believability, been the cost of losing all of their lives, or you shook your head as they brought pain on themselves over and over again. I found myself doing the latter. Richard Brody does a great job of breaking down the film’s regressive politics here—a critique that Krasinski has challenged unconvincingly. (Side note: If you find a waterfall where it’s possible to scream as loud as you want without fear of the big-deadly-super-hearing monsters, you probably build your house just as close to that waterfall as possible.)
If Krasinski wanted to challenge this reading, he had that chance with A Quiet Place Part II, and I think he has attempted it. I finally took the time to catch up with the AQP family over Halloween (though it appears the film was released back in May). Alas, the tension of the premise, aside from one expertly filmed and edited scene in flashback, is again mostly destroyed by bad character decisions and vague character intentions. Does the family leave the home Krasinski’s character died protecting in the first film simply to seek out a replacement patriarch? If so, they quickly succeed in finding one in Cillian Murphy’s Emmett, whose brittle “They’re not the kind of people worth saving” ethos does appear to connect thematically, at least in hindsight, to the character’s growing empathy over the course of the film. In doing so, it resists the tried and true “The people are actually worse than the monsters” cliche. Though, watching AQPII, one can’t help but recall Cillian in his role in 28 Days Later when that trope seemed vital.
That said, the (spoilers) radio station and the angry howl of resistance that emerges from it harkens back to that awkward suicidal yelp at the end of the first film. While it’s a cool technical device that reunites the film’s crosscut divergent plots, if we accept Brody’s suggestion that J-Kras’ hollering is meant as a final righteous cry of the silenced-majority, then it appears reactionary radio angst is literally the heroic death knell for the aliens. Reactionary media to the rescue! (Another side note, while it’s visually neat that they all go barefoot, just a quick calculus of the pros and cons of footwear makes you wonder how and why they settled on that strat.)
That same reactionary stance is at the core of the problem with Krasinski’s A Quiet Place and at the core of the thesis of Kaczynski’s manifesto. In defining “The Power Process,” Kaczynski outlines how the urge to fulfill survival needs is routed toward what he calls “surrogate activities”—basically activities by which we allow ourselves the practice of power—that is defining a problem, coming up with a plan, and executing the plan with some amount of autonomy. T-Kacz lists scientific work, athletic achievement, humanitarian work, and artistic and literary creation among these pursuits. To greater or lesser degree, depending on the power needs of the individual, this is one way by which we take care of that excess survival urge. But “industrial society,” as Ted puts it, does not often allow such autonomy. Its hierarchical structure infringes upon autonomy and even the sublimated process is repressed. One must find some way to express it in their free time—often this happens through family dynamics, hobbies, and the pursuit of consumer goods. Otherwise, feelings of powerlessness follow.
While power fantasy films generally offer the entire suite of emotional involvement (conflict and resolution) it’s foolish to think that viewers leave these films’ reactionary underpinnings behind with the leftover popcorn.
I would argue that this is where the production and sale of power fantasies like A Quiet Place come in. (It should be noted that I’m not excusing myself from their allure here, though I have cultivated a kind of allergy to the more transparent and over-the-top power fantasies of films like John Wick, The Punisher, Taken, and most of the superhero genre.) These types of media deal in the conversion of frustration to anger and from anger to action—good guy is harmed, he decides to do something about it, usually this escalates to gun violence, good-guy-with-gun brings justice for himself and a simulation of justice for the viewer—a simulated version of the power process, and our mirror neurons (that is, our capacity for grafting the protagonists’ story onto our own) do the rest. Whether it’s home invasions, rogue cops, secret agents, revenge fantasies, or just quiet-guys-pushed-to-the-brink, you can’t fire a gun in the direction of a modern megaplex without hitting one of these films. And while power fantasy films generally offer the entire suite of emotional involvement (conflict and resolution) it’s foolish to think that viewers leave these films’ reactionary underpinnings behind with the leftover popcorn.
Instead, IRL, the trafficking of reactionary anger through media (films, but also news media, radio and video shows, etc.) is big business, and it’s a full-throttle, both-guns-blazing, balls-to-the-wall threat to democracy, baby! Arguably the survival-starved powerlessness cycle stands at the center of both (power fantasy films and reactionary media). If the modern man hunter-gathered his cheeseburger across the sprawl of suburbia, he would have neither the time nor inclination to watch John Wick dig up his guns and gold and annihilate Russian immigrants at close range. Neither would he thirst for the simulated anger of conservative talk radio. That same repressed powerlessness which draws us to violent delights translates into political and cultural enmity, and worthless politicians. Reactionary media co-opts frustrations, converts them to anger, and, crucially, points it at whatever IRL target is most convenient, be that a candidate up for election or a vitamin supplement. The monsters, whether they’re from another planet, another country, or just the closest metropolis, are coming for YOU. You gotta man-up, arm to the teeth, bury your gold, stock up on canned meat, wire up the closed-circuit cams, and get the bigger truck. You are alone, chief, and they really, REALLY want to tread on you. Admittedly, A Quiet Place isn’t the genre’s worst offender, but in the game of amplifying a modest feeling of powerlessness into a full-on pathology of vulnerability, it’s not a bad place to start either.
So I hope you’ll forgive me for picking this bone with the relatively tame AQPII, but its particular appropriateness here is that the film and its director fly so neatly under the radar of critique. You might say that the pivotal difference here between Kaczynski and Krasinski (besides that merciful “r”) is their store of pop-culture good will. While I find Ted’s power process literature to be a useful tool in understanding troubling right-wing tendencies (of which he himself shows plenty!) his brand is so tarnished by the bombings and the deranged scruff of his beard that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to look at his writing with anything warmer than morbid curiosity. On the other hand, while J-Kras traffics in conservative-lite politics and power fantasies, he’s a tall charming guy with a manicured beard who spent a decade breaking the fourth wall on The Office letting the audience in on the joke like a good friend—the calm, fuckable, center of cool normality in a circus of broken and odd-looking office personalities. Among my generation anyway, admiration of the American The Office remake has emerged as a kind of shibboleth for good humored normalcy, while showing any admiration for Ted K will get you on a watch list. Ted might call these reactions “oversocialization,” and I’d be tempted to agree. My point here is sure, yeah, consider the source, but also, just maybe, consider the text. | Mike McCubbins
At the time of publication, A Quiet Place is available to stream on Paramount +, and available to rent from Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, and Vudu. For the latest availability, visit ReelGood.com.