The Vast Of Night
US (2019) Dir. Andrew Patterson
What it is that makes us believe in something? Most people have to see it or have some sort of tangible evidence before accepting the truth, some are happy to take the word of others if they sound convincing enough. Quite often, an unusual situation will leave us open to all sorts of influence before the truth is established.
In New Mexico in the late 1950s, the local high school is holding the first game of the basketball game but something is interfering with the electrics. Meanwhile, teen radio DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) are teasing out a new tape recorder as they head to their respective jobs. When Everett takes to the air, Fay listens in but the signal keeps breaking up.
Similar interference occurs on the switchboard as Fay takes people’s calls, and when she calls her colleagues for advice, they keep getting cut off. The noise intensifies so Fay calls Everett about it, which baffles him so he puts it out on air to see if his listeners can help. A former military man called Billy (Bruce Davis) calls in, revealing this might be related to something he witnessed many years, and it didn’t come from earth.
The beginning of the Space Race in late 1950s America saw a boom in interest in sci-fi, be it in film or on TV, which mostly revolved around aliens invading earth. One of the most popular TV shows from this period was The Twilight Zone, which delighted in telling short mysterious tales usually with a sci-fi/horror bent with a big twist to put the willies up the viewers or tease their imaginations.
For his debut, Andrew Patterson has chosen to immerse himself in recreating and paying homage to this with The Vast Of Night, bookending the film to create the illusion it was an episode of a TV show called Paradox Theatre. Much like in the story, the audience has to rely on what is said and not what is shown to get caught up in this tale of apparent alien visitors, a bold tact for a genre where visual bombast is essential.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be much of an issue and the script does a good job of building intrigue and anticipation towards the big reveal, but the fundamental difference between this film and The Twilight Zone is that the latter ran for just thirty minutes – Patterson has 90 minutes to play with, which is a little too long to keep teasing the viewers, and after a while the inane chatter starts to becomes a tad tiresome.
All of the evidence presented to the characters is either circumstantial or hard to believe testimonies which can neither be confirmed nor debunked, building incrementally even if it doesn’t seem obvious at the time. It starts with the problem at the school gym which could be anything, and doesn’t really explain why the principal called Everett in to fix it just because he works in radio.
But, it does introduce him and Fay to the story, as the two smartest and nerdiest people in town. The next few minutes is the first of three single takes in which the camera follows their walk to their respective jobs, discussing latest scientific news. Fay relays articles about the development of electric cars complete with Satnav, and vacuum tube travel which will apparently to be common by 1990 which she is keen about, yet dismisses the idea of a mobile phone.
Her operating the switchboard is the setting for the next single take scene, ten minutes of just Fay and the voices on the other end of the phone lines. It sounds dull but really isn’t as every call plays a part in establishing the signal interference as a problem she can’t handle. Being alone and unable to leave her desk (which she does later anyway), this simple scenario becomes an eerie claustrophobic drama, bolstered by the camera slowly creeping in on its subject.
Patterson follows this with a very impressive tracking shot leaving the tiny switchboard office to fly around town, drop in on the basketball game, then arrive at the radio station where Everett is taking Billy’s call. The final single take features Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), an elderly woman with an adjunct to Billy’s story in which she believes her son was abducted by aliens, the same ones who are in town tonight, looking to prey on those not at the basketball game.
Now we are finally getting somewhere but chances are some viewers may have checked out by this point, so Paterson responds by making the final act a rush of action, perhaps too rushed as Everett has a brainwave, people are starting to act weird, and for some reason Fay takes a baby with her to whatever uncertain danger awaits.
Up until this point, everything has been low key and low budget, at just $700,000, so it is to some relief that the special effects are extremely well done and don’t look cheap at all, benefiting from being kept simple. The replication of the period setting was the result of plenty of preparation and scouting, the payoff being a convincing aesthetic, including a fully working 50s switchboard, along with the cars, tech equipment, and outfits.
Conversely, the lack of well-known names in the cast works in the film’s favour, making it easier to engage with the characters without being distracted by familiar faces. Sierra McCormick is unquestionably the star here, if only for her deft handling of the old switchboard, whilst Jake Horowitz takes a while to warm to as Everett – in fact, I’m not entirely sure I did.
The Vast Of Night is an ambitious debut for Patterson given the limitations which he worked to his advantage, and whilst the story was well told, it was stretched a little too thinly for 90-minutes. That said, this is good for what it is.
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