Directed by Andrew Patterson | Written by Patterson (as James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger | 89 min | Amazon Prime
Every now and then a film arrives simply loaded with cinematic intelligence, where the filmmaker’s every decision is writ large onscreen. That’s what The Vast Of Night is, certainly one of the best debut science fiction films of recent years.
Ostensibly, it’s an unabashed homage to the beloved anthology series The Twilight Zone. We’re regularly reminded the events depicted are being viewed on an old Philco Predicta TV from the late 1950s, on a show called Paradox Theatre.
Things are happening almost in real time as we open on a high school gym in a (fictional) small town, Cayuga, New Mexico. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a wise-ass who indulges the questions of tech newbie Fay (Sierra McCormick) — she’s just gotten her hands on a tape recorder. While a basketball game is going on and almost everyone in town is attending, Everett is on the air with his evening rock radio broadcast and Fay’s working as a telephone operator. That’s when Fay notices a strange, repeating sound interrupt the show, and then picks it up over the phone line, too. Everett plays a recording of the sound on his show, and gets a call from a former military man, Billy (the voice of Bruce Davis), who tells him what the sound might mean. It has to do with people in the sky.
So, yes, structurally or thematically this isn’t especially new territory. But, consider the look of the film: It zigzags from bravura, restless and largely uninterrupted shots right through this New Mexico town (actually filmed in Texas), to long character monologues where everything just stops, forcing us to pay attention without any particularly impressive visuals. In fact, while Billy is talking over the phone, the screen fades to black on more than one occasion.
One of the many things Patterson manages to do well is conduct the relationship between his leads. You can tell they’re not good friends at school. He’s a little older than her, a bit of a star, and she’s an admirer. But she’s also smart and self-possessed enough to call him on his bullshit. Their delightful tag team energy and growing collaboration provides nuance a lesser film wouldn’t have delivered.
Check out how Patterson stays away from his performers in the impressive opening shots, framing figures solidly in the middle ground until we get into the meat of the story, and he slowly, inexorably, gets closer. Also impressive is the lighting, the gorgeous grain in the image as we slip between the distorted tube images from a 60-year-old TV and desaturated wide shots.
Tying all this together is a lovely score from Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer, and A+ sound editing, essential to holding the interest.
Which, I must admit, the film doesn’t quite manage throughout. There are moments where The Vast Of Night could have stoked real dread and fear in its audience, but Patterson dials that back to something more cerebral, more suited to the anthology show he’s aping. Bridging the third act is a visit with a senior (Gail Cronauer) who has a story to tell, but the movie goes just a little slack there, and in the final few minutes as it reaches toward a Close Encounters-level of awe, the only place its budget can’t quite match its ambition.
But what ambition! For a genre picture it surprises by commenting on the racial and gender politics of the era, and at the same time delivers some of the snappiest lingo-laced dialogue since Rian Johnson’s Brick. Patterson’s clear intent is to explore our fascination with technology, the science of communication and broadcasting, but I hesitate to say more until I’ve watched the film again — there’s more to unpack here. And I can’t wait to watch it again.