Review: Andrew Patterson's 'The Vast of Night' is Spellbinding Sci-Fi
by Adam Frazier
May 28, 2020
"There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man." With this sentence, Rod Serling first introduced The Twilight Zone to American viewers on October 2nd in 1959. The influential anthology TV series, which followed in the tradition of other shows such as Science Fiction Theatre and radio programs like Dimension X, blended fantasy, science fiction, and horror with morality tales to explore pressing socio-political issues. Over the past sixty years, The Twilight Zone has inspired countless storytellers, including Gene Roddenberry, Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, Chris Carter, M. Night Shyamalan, J.J. Abrams, Charlie Brooker, and Jordan Peele. The beloved show's latest progeny is the film The Vast of Night, the feature debut of director Andrew Patterson and also screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger.
"You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten."
And so begins The Vast of Night, framed as an episode of "Paradox Theater", a Twilight Zone-style series. A Serling-esque narrator sets the stage, explaining that we, the viewers, are in a slipstream between channels, in a frequency caught between logic and myth. The camera then slowly pushes in on an old Philco Predicta television set until it crosses the threshold of the green-tinted picture tube, transporting us to the 1950s, to the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico. While the rest of the town cheers on the local basketball team, young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and the charismatic radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) stumble upon a strange audio anomaly that may change their town – and the world as we know it – forever.
A love letter to old-time radio programs like The Mercury Theatre on the Air (where Orson Welles caused a panic with his 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds) and Atomic Age science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space, The Vast of Night tells a familiar story in an inventive way, utilizing a stage play structure with audio drama and modern filmmaking techniques to transcend the medium in a way that is compelling and utterly charming. Chilean cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz (also of Hands of Stone, Resistance) captures the 1950s vibe with a hazy, mellow glow as if we are inside the Predicta's glass screen. Production designer Adam Dietrich and costume designer Jamie Reed capture the shape and sheen of the era perfectly with everything from manual telephone switchboards and magnetic tape recorders, to saddle shoes and cat-eye glasses.
The peculiar AM radio signal sends Fay and Everett on a sci-fi scavenger hunt, where anonymous phone calls, secret reels of tape, and mysterious objects in the sky lead the winsome, fast-talking duo down a rabbit hole in pursuit of the truth. McCormick (of VFW) and Horowitz (of the upcoming Castle Freak remake / reboot) are excellent in their roles and have terrific chemistry with one another. Other great performances include scene-stealer Gail Cronauer as an elderly woman with a dark secret, and Bruce Davis, whose voice we hear during a mesmerizing phone call scene that leans heavily into radio drama by showing a black screen for several minutes. You hang on the caller's every word, your imagination racing to fill the blackness with images of what he's describing. It's riveting stuff that pulls you deeper and deeper into the story.
Another stand-out sequence is an impossibly long one-shot take in which the camera moves across the town at night. This sequence lays out the geography of Cayuga — where the major landmarks of the story (Fay's switchboard, the radio station, the high school) are situated and where the characters are during a crucial point in the story. It's a sophisticated, stylish scene that serves a purpose, enhancing the story by giving it a sense of urgency and intrigue. The scene is one of many instances in which I found myself in a delighted state of shock that The Vast of Night is the debut of a director (and screenwriting team) and not the work of a seasoned genre filmmaker. I also enjoyed the various Easter eggs planted throughout, like that Cayuga gets its name from Rod Serling's production company, or the radio station's call letters — WOTW — are an abbreviation for War of the Worlds. There are several other references, so keep your eyes & ears peeled.
Equal parts Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Pontypool (the 2008 Canadian horror film about a DJ trapped in a radio station during a zombie outbreak), The Vast of Night is an old-fashioned yet innovative science fiction film that takes its time in spinning its yarn, pulling you into the mystery and making you care for the characters at its center. No wonder it won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival and was subsequently snatched up by Amazon Studios for a
theatrical drive-in and streaming release. If you're a fan of the genre, you've got to check out Patterson's film on Amazon Prime Video as soon as possible - it's a slow burn with great performances and a jaw-dropping finale that will fill you with awe. I don't know about you, but I need all the awe and astonishment I can get right now.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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