‘The Vast of Night’ Is a Sci-Fi Marvel and ‘Twilight Zone’ Throwback
Filmmaker Andrew Patterson’s stellar sci-fi indie debut, available on Prime May 29, marks the arrival of a director to watch.
Directorial debuts don’t begin in much more confident, bravura fashion than The Vast of Night, a science-fiction indie that heralds the arrival of major talents in helmer Andrew Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Premiering on Amazon Prime Video on May 29, it’s a low-fi genre gem that proves the age-old maxim that less is often more—especially when such minimalism is wielded by gifted artists with a flair for unnerving mood and tantalizing mystery.
The Vast of Night opens with flickering white lights in the dark, followed by a zoom through a 1950s-era living room to a television set broadcasting an episode of “Paradox Theater,” an obvious The Twilight Zone homage whose latest installment shares a title with the film itself. The episode commences with the sight of a man donning a hat as he heads out to a basketball game, at which point the program cuts to fast-talking Everett (Jake Horowitz) outside Cayuga High School’s gymnasium. Before we can get our bearings, Everett heads inside the building alongside a young compatriot, the two engaging in rapid-fire talk about an electrical problem that’s causing the lights to flicker—a recurring hitch that everyone ascribes to squirrels chewing through power lines.
Patterson’s camera trails behind Everett as he makes his way across the court, into the back where adults are diagnosing the issue, and then back to the main floor, where he runs into Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). Their banter flies by at a furious clip, and The Vast of Night doesn’t pause to let its audience catch its breath, demanding intense engagement from the outset. The payoff is tremendous, as through their humorous back-and-forths (marked by an endearing big brother/little sister dynamic) we learn that smooth-talking, cocky-but-sweet Everett is the local DJ, and that Fay—whose brand new tape recorder is a source of considerable discussion—is the local switchboard operator. Moreover, Patterson’s prolonged takes trailing the duo introduce us to their New Mexico hometown, a cozy small-town enclave where families eat sandwiches in their cars outside the gym, young kids frolic on school grounds, and dark roads are illuminated by solitary street lamps and steeped in rural silence.
The Vast of Night’s fleet initial passages provide an immediate hold-onto-your-seats rush. Better yet, there’s a method to their madness—one that becomes clear once the plot comes into sharper focus. During a stroll to her place of work, Fay tells Everett about three separate magazine articles she’s read about futuristic innovations regarding travel and communication: radio-controlled self-driving cars; large-scale tube transportation; and TV-enabled mobile phones. While subsequently tuning in to Everett’s “Highway Hits” show at her switchboard, Fay hears a strange sound interrupt the broadcast, as well as on a call that comes through with no one on the other end. Puzzled, she notifies Everett of this phenomenon, and he opts to broadcast it on-air, asking if listeners might recognize, or be able to identify, the sonic gibberish. When former serviceman Billy (Bruce Davis) gets in touch, an answer to the evening’s bizarre incidents starts to materialize—one involving shadowy military assignments in the desert, clandestine concealed-from-view objects, and broadcasts from the stratosphere.
In the scene in which Fay notifies Everett by phone of the baffling signal, Patterson’s slowly-zooming camera lingers on the teenage girl’s face for minutes on end as the two analyze the noise, and discuss its possible Air Force origins. As with the preceding tracking shot through the gym, this sustained single-take conveys the nature, and power, of communication—how it moves at a furious clip, bridging large distances and connecting people near and far. That impression is further cemented by the film’s centerpiece sequence, in which Patterson’s camera exits Fay’s operator office, zooms through streets, fields and backyards, enters the gym and crosses the court mid-basketball game, exits out a high window, and continues zipping along the ground until it finally stops at Everett’s console inside the WOTW radio studio—a masterful visual expression of narrative flow, and storytelling’s capacity for binding, and intertwining, disparate faces and places.
The Vast of Night marries its modern effects-aided showmanship to old-school radio-play dramatic craft. Everett, Fay and those they encounter discuss inexplicable occurrences (Lights in the sky! Strange chants emanating from babies’ mouths!) while we, the audience, are left to imagine those things taking place, sometimes as the screen cuts to literal black for significant stretches. The effect is akin to a cinematic version of Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds, if that famous 1938 broadcast had been rooted in an ongoing reality. Patterson, Montague, and Sanger evoke much via conversation and suggestive aesthetics, and the fact that their action often transitions back to grainy black-and-white serves as both a reminder that the proceedings are actually a television show, and that—more fundamentally still—the entire affair is itself a work of spooky fiction.
M.I. Littin-Menz’s superb cinematography (which has the quality of a faded photograph) and Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s vibrant orchestral score further amplify the nostalgic atmosphere, and Horowitz and McCormick’s excellent performances capture the attitude and lingo of '50s teens without resorting to caricature. Everett’s wise, arrogant poise is perfectly paired with Fay’s excitable eagerness, and as they race about town trying to solve the extraterrestrial puzzle that’s fallen in their lap, they become endearing proxies for us, the viewers—listening intently, interpreting information quickly, and freaking out as things get more and more unbelievable. Yet even as its secrets are slowly unraveled, the film maintains firm command of its teasing, understated tone, refusing to devolve into CGI spectacle during its crucial climactic moments.
In both form and content, The Vast of Night is a combination of the old and the new, right up to a final juxtaposition between two distinctly different technological means of communication. Never once, however, does it feel like anything less than a thrillingly contemporary spin on out-of-this-world material—as well as an impressive first step for a director, and a pair of writers, with bright futures ahead of them.