Amazon Prime’s The Vast of Night has a lot more going for it than just eye-popping cinematography and machinegun rapid-fire dialogue, but that’s probably what you’ll notice first. Both aspects of this 1950s-set sci-fi potboiler are on abundant display in the film’s opening scene: a long-take tracking shot following cocksure small-town radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) as he swings by the packed high school gym on basketball match night in Cayuga, New Mexico, and runs into bubbly teen Fay (Sierra McCormick) as she heads out for her part-time job as a switchboard operator. Executed with unerring technical precision and an enviable economy of character storytelling, these opening ten minutes show an elevated level of screenwriting and directing prowess that hooks you right in. Even more importantly, it announces writer/director Andrew Patterson, in his feature film debut, as a red-hot new talent to keep an eye on.
Often feeling like “What if Aaron Sorkin wrote a mash-up of HG Well’s The War of the Worlds and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind?”, The Vast of Night is a tightly coiled 90-minutes of mystery and suspense that plays out mostly in real-time after Fay discovers a weird noise cutting through Everett’s late-night radio broadcast and creating interference on her switchboard. When two callers on Everett’s show claim to know something about that noise and respectively recount chilling stories about their experiences with it, it sets the two friends pinballing from one side of their vintage Americana home town to the other trying to unearth the source of it all as local reports mount of “something in the sky”.
Like the famous radio serials of its 1950s setting, The Vast of Night requires the audience to be game for an experience where what is not seen is just as effective as what is. Shocking narrative twists happen by way of unreliable recounted stories and garbled radio transmissions. As Everett and Fay get drawn deeper into this mystery, they don’t get to peek behind the curtain and so neither do we. And all the while the tension builds.
This is not the type of loud and explosive, CGI-filled blockbuster that many of you may associate with the sci-fi genre. Instead, it’s a film that lets the chemistry and performances of its actors be all the flashy special effects you need. Horowitz and McCormick, chewing through Patterson’s talky, character-driven script with gusto, both turn in fantastic showings here, but it’s McCorckick that truly sizzles in a star-making turn. It’s all but impossible not to root for her Fay, with her geeky ebullience and endearing habit of running everywhere on foot. She’s the thumping heart of this retro-inspired production.
A production that was filmed in less than a month on a shoestring budget of just $700,000. Not that you would notice when you get gifted with cinematic achievements like an insanely ambitious, geography-establishing cross-town camera pan that happens mid-film and will leave you staggering as you consider the logistics of how Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz pulled it off. In fact, there are no low-budget rough edges to be found here. Patterson has honed every aspect so as to lean fully into his vision, even using intercutting credits and scene transitions, and a fantastically retro-futuristic music score from Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer, to present the entire film as an episode of Paradox Theatre, a faux Twilight-Zone type anthology TV series. That level of commitment to the aesthetic makes it all work without feeling gimmicky and kitsch (hell, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, that retro-ness got even more meta as Amazon gave the film a simultaneous release in drive-in theatres as well on its streaming service).
And with Patterson’s intelligent script touching on everything from Cold War paranoia to racial/social injustice with the respect and sensitivity it all deserves without getting preachy, it’s amazing just how big this little movie feels. If there’s a criticism to be made, it would be that Patterson knows just how good it is to watch Horowitz and McCormick riff off each other at a thousand words per minute, and so he sometimes lets them go at it a bit too long in places. The film’s ending, despite how clearly necessary it is, may also leave some a little frustrated in its abruptness. But these are small niggles in an otherwise astonishing first-time effort.
In any other year of billion-dollar behemoths crowding the box office, this whip-smart throwback to the type of character-driven sci-fi film that we seldomly see these days would probably have been completely lost in the noise. Thanks to the utterly unique confluence of events that we’ve seen unfold in 2020 though, The Vast of Night is getting a lot of fully deserved attention as one of the best films of the year… or any year of recent memory. As talky as this remarkable little film is, with it Patterson has ensured that he’s the one who Hollywood will be talking about after this.
Last Updated: June 8, 2020