Better late than never, eh? There’s something about alien stories set during the 1940s-1960s that appeals to me. Maybe it’s that whole “things were simpler back then” trope or the fun that comes with watching or reading an alien story set during the height of the nation’s obsession with UFOs. Whatever it is, I often enjoy stories set during this period. And I also enjoy stories that focus on old-timey radio/TV production. In this context, it should be no surprise that The Vast of Night immediately appealed to me. I hadn’t heard much about it, but the moment Amazon Prime suggested it to me, I was eager to watch it. In theory, it touched on a lot of things I love and it looked pretty darn good. Having seen it, it is pretty darn good. The Vast of Night is easily one of my favorite films of the year. It’s both modern and retro and is filled with charm, great performances, great direction, and a solid story. (4.5 out of 5 wands.)
(NOTE: Mild spoilers for The Vast of Night may follow.)
The Vast of Night (written by Andrew Patterson and Craig W. Sanger, directed by Andrew Patterson)
In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and charismatic radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever. Dropped phone calls, AM radio signals, secret reels of tape forgotten in a library, switchboards, crossed patchlines, and an anonymous phone call lead Fay and Everett on a scavenger hunt toward the unknown.
The Vast of Night has a shockingly simple story. Everett and Faye hear a strange noise on Everett’s radio show and work to figure out its origin. Their search takes them from person-to-person as they work out what this mysterious noise is and where it comes from. It isn’t a film that’s filled with twists and turns; you have a good idea where it’s going and it goes linearly and naturally from one point to the next, constantly building on what’s come before and working towards its eventual conclusion. It may be simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. The whole film is so well-constructed that it’s easy to lose yourself in this world. You get tense whenever Everett and Faye get tense and you feel relief when they feel relief. It’s a well-constructed roller coaster that’s so fun to ride.
Just because the plot is simple, doesn’t mean it’s not clever and creative. A framing device is set up early on, suggesting the film is actually an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque show, Paradox Theatre. It’s a clever little idea that immediately establishes the tone of the film. Like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone, The Vast of Night often feels like more of an audio drama or stage play than a film, with an emphasis placed on conversations between a few people in a few different locations instead of big action scenes and lots of CGI. The dialogue is well-written, sounding both natural and stylized while balancing realism with the expository needs of the scene. Also like The Twilight Zone, the film is slow but deliberately paced, carefully building its way to an exciting and ambiguous climax. It even subtly tackles a few societal issues, too, in much the same way shows like The Twilight Zone might. As the film progresses, the tension rises in a very natural manner and it’s such fun to go along with it. The ending will leave you with more questions than answers, but isn’t that true for the best Twilight Zone episodes? Ultimately, it’s a great story that’s told extremely well.
Lead actors Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick do much of the heavy lifting, carrying the bulk of the film on their shoulders. The two have the vast majority of the film’s dialogue and are on screen for almost all of the run time. It’s a tour-de-force for both of them, with special praise for McCormick, who, in a scene about twenty minutes into the film, has to operate an old switchboard while delivering a lot of dialogue in a nearly ten-minute-long uninterrupted shot. It’s the kind of thing you see on stage a lot but not on screen much. Everett and Faye are both archetypal characters, as are most Twilight Zone-esque characters, but Horowitz and McCormick breathe such life and personality into them that they don’t feel like archetypal characters. Horwitz and McCormick have great chemistry together and they bounce well off each other. Every scene they share is bursting with energy and charm and they are so fun to watch.
Equally charming are the film’s visuals. There may not be a big budget at play or a lot of CGI (save for one scene that was either very solid CGI or a great model), but that doesn’t mean the film is without visual style. The Vast of Night features stylish and confident direction from Andrew Patterson and atmospheric cinematography from Miguel Littin-Menz. There are lots of long shots, often holding on one person for unusually long amounts of time or taking the audience from location-to-location in an uninterrupted shot. Several of the film’s transitions are shown as footage on an old TV, emphasizing the film’s framing as an episode of an anthology show. The whole film is even color-graded to be evocative of an old show or movie – though it did result in some questionable contrast choices.
Much of the film takes place at night, but the film has a really low contrast which makes all of the shadows feel washed out. I’m unsure if this was a stylistic choice or a problem with Amazon’s compression technology. If it’s a stylistic choice, I understand what the filmmakers were going for as lower contrast does feel reminiscent of older films, but I felt it was a bit too emphasized. If it was on Amazon’s end, it’s a real shame. The trailer doesn’t look as washed out, so I’m unsure what the film is supposed to look like. Cranking the brightness down on my TV helped a lot, but I’m not sure what Patterson’s true intention was for the film’s contrast. Regardless the film is still a visual treat, packed with visual choices that enhance the story and the atmosphere. It’s a very good looking film, especially for the budget.
At the end of the day, I loved The Vast of Night. It’s exactly my kind of film: very stylish, deliberately paced, and extra creative. The whole film is bullied by Patterson’s confident direction, Patterson and Craig W. Sanger’s engaging script, and Horowitz and McCormick’s electric performances. Filled to the brim with an atmospheric and engaging story, interesting visuals, and engrossing sound effects, The Vast of Night is a treat for all filmgoers. I thoroughly recommend it to all fans of old-school sci-fi and alien films. Also to anyone with an interest in old-school radio or TV. It’s well worth a watch and easily ranks among my favorite films of the year, so far.
4.5 out of 5 wands.