The Vast of Night
A nostalgic and refreshing sci-fi film
The sci-fi genre has quickly devolved in recent decades into one filled with explosions and action, and few and far in between are there films that use such a genre to question certain aspects of present day. Fewer still delve into the genre with a restraint, to hold back against showing off big effects and impressive make-up. Thus, it was refreshing to see The Vast of Night (2019) on Amazon Prime, which from first-time director Andrew Patterson brings about that long-lost subtlety and mysterious intrigue.
The Vast of Night is the story of a small town in the 1950s American west called Cayuga. The first high school basketball game of the season is occurring, and it being a small town nearly all the population is going to attend. However, we follow two characters who don’t, high schoolers Everett (Jake Horowitz) who runs the local radio station and Fay (Sierra McCormick) who works as a switchboard operator. Over the night, Fay starts to hear mysterious noises over the phone lines and radio waves; together with Everett they seek to figure out what they are.
The film is reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) albeit with a much more restrained and experimental feel. Spielberg ended up showing and answering a lot of viewers’ questions, while Patterson seems to think that the more enshrouded in mystery and vagueness, the more fascinating. As a first-time director it was incredibly encouraging to see Patterson handle such incredible subtlety and control over the aesthetic and tone of his film.
Mainstream sci-fi fans will be disappointed with Patterson’s take on possible UFOs, as the director seems much keener to explore his characters and particularly his setting. One might compare the thematic elements of The Vast of Night to that of Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) in that there is a painful longing for the small-town America, where everyone would know each other, and the doors were barely locked at night. While Bogdanovich’s feature remained sadly reminiscent of these times, Patterson seeks to answer the reason of their disappearance through the symbolism of UFOs, standing in as the manipulators that made the United States the cut-throat competitive society that it is today.
There is a curious clash Patterson searches for as he stages his characters, never really leaning in for close-ups – you will find it hard to see the characters’ full faces – and using long tracking shots. We get a semi-documentary feel with these techniques, although Patterson contrasts this by having his film open through an old-fashioned TV set, as if we were watching an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and throughout the film we are constantly switched to this wavy black-and-white filter; as if Patterson’s afraid we might forget this is fiction. It is this mastery of contrast and boldness that surprised me most, and excited me into the potential that Patterson has as a filmmaker.
Even if one never gets a good look at the actors’ faces, the performers have to be commended for holding such long takes and expertly diving into the rhythm of the story and conversations. Such uninterrupted performances allow for an immersion into the small-town atmosphere and furthermore into the mystery of the narrative. In fact, the majority of the film is made up of conversations between two characters, with some performers never even appearing on screen as they speak, being callers to the radio show or switchboard station; and yet one gets an aura of fully-fledged characters throughout. Having no names of great renown makes these achievements even more encouraging for cinema-lovers as they indicate the incredible pool of untapped talent, waiting for their chance. Of particular highlight as a performer was Sierra McCormick, who has the most semblance of an arc and can better play with a range of emotions, all the while never going overboard or theatrical with the role.
In the end, The Vast of Night proves to be a delightful surprise. Harkening back towards the more unusual sci-fi films of the 1950s and the 1970s, The Vast of Night proves to be boldly refreshing. Patterson proves to be a rising star with his mature handling of restraint and the risky trust he puts into unknown, yet incredibly talented, performers. The Vast of Night is unconventional, yet that is exactly what cinema and modern sci-fi need right now.