Vast of Night, The (United States, 2020)

May 29, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Vast of Night, The Poster

The Vast of Night begins with an image of a TV set. A show is just beginning as the camera moves in, allowing all other details but the grainy black-and-white image to fade away. A voice, sounding suspiciously like Rod Serling, tells us “You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadows – all taking place on a stage forged from mysteries and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth.” The name of the program is Paradox Theater. Today’s episode is “The Vast of Night.” By now, we are fully into the picture. It expands to fill the entire screen and color bleeds into the images. We are no longer watching the TV. Now, we are experiencing the story.

Oh, it’s not the most original of science fiction tales and those who have seen their share of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits will find themselves at home. However, although the narrative trajectory may be familiar, the specific path taken by director Andrew Patterson feels fresh. His camerawork is fluid, often relying on long takes rather than rat-a-tat-tat editing. Dialogue and character interaction replace pointless action and needless spectacle. Yet the movie succeeds not only in evoking the two TV shows that inspired it but also films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s a stark reminder that ideas are more important than production budgets in crafting compelling science fiction. At one time, movie-goers recognized that but decades of increasingly over-the-top effects has caused us to forget.

The main characters, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), are introduced during a long, unhurried sequence in which he playfully teaches her the finer points of using a newfangled piece of technology she has purchased: a tape recorder. She’s a 16-year old student at Cayuga (New Mexico) High and he’s a late night DJ at local radio station WOTW. To make a few dollars, Fay works the evening shift at the telephone switchboard. While on duty there, she starts to notice strange goings-on: odd noises on some lines, calls being cut off, a panicked woman saying there are objects hovering in the sky near her house. Fay contacts Everett, who agrees to investigate. It soon becomes clear that, on the night of the season’s first big basketball game, something of even greater import is happening overhead.

Although The Vast of Night borrows the “retro” conceit from Stranger Things, its style and approach are different. This is as talky as science fiction gets. The getting-to-know-you scene with Everett and Faye follows them as they wander around at night discussing things she has read about possible future inventions (it’s an opportunity for the filmmakers to poke fun at the futuristic visions of the 1950s). Patterson occasionally allows the screen to go completely black as a means to enhance suspense or increase the importance of the dialogue. He also occasionally interrupts the flow of the story by returning to grainy black-and-white television images, reminding us that we’re watching a TV show. This is one stylistic quirk that doesn’t work because it has the effect of pulling the viewer out of the story and creating a distraction. The most action to be found in the movie is arguably Fay pulling out and attaching jumpers at the switchboard.

The movie contains one sequence that is as unique as it is oddly poetic. As a way of transitioning from Fay (who is at the switchboard) to Everett (who is across town at the radio station), Patterson creates a long, continuous tracking shot that starts with Fay outside of the telephone office (smoking a cigarette), follows a road and cuts across a field until it reaches Cayuga High School (where the camera spends about a minute watching the game), then continues on to WOTW where Everett is outside (also smoking). Yes, the sequence calls attention to itself but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable.

Distilled to its essence, The Vast of Night is an extraterrestrial abduction story that has fun with the tropes and clichés of a genre that has spawned everything from cheesy B-movies to more serious-minded efforts like The X-Files. (Note that the fictional Cayuga is almost certainly intended to be close to Roswell.) It provides us with two capable protagonists whose relationship is that of a mentor and student (without a whiff of anything romantic to muddy the waters) and allows the plot to develop through their conversations with each other and with supporting characters like “Billy,” a caller to Everett’s show, and Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), an old woman who knows a thing or two about what’s happening.

The Vast of Night has a payoff and, in that moment, it applies the “show don’t tell” rule. The movie works not because of anything unique or surprising in the story but because the filmmakers have paid such loving attention to the way in which it is crafted that it unfolds effortlessly and with great panache. It’s fun, retro, and engaging and loses nothing important when seen on the small screen.

Vast of Night, The (United States, 2020)

Director: Andrew Patterson
Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz
Screenplay: James Montague & Craig W. Sanger
Cinematography: Miguel Ioann Littin Menz
Music: Alexander, Jared Bulmer
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Studios
Run Time: 1:29
U.S. Release Date: 2020-05-29
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity)
Genre: Science Fiction
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1