Director Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is a low-budget sci-fi gem and a tremendous first feature; at once offbeat, mysterious, gripping, and almost certainly destined for cult status. It begins Twilight Zone style, with a Rod Sterling-esque 1950s TV programme entitled Paradox Theater offering “a realm between the clandestine and the forgotten”, with “tonight’s episode” entitled The Vast of Night. The screen then expands to the 2:35:1 aspect ratio for the duration of the “broadcast”, occasionally reverting to 4:3 monochrome TV format to remind viewers of this arch but effective framing device.
The 1950s set plot not only evokes the imaginative science fiction television and films of the period, but also brings to mind Orson Welles’s notorious 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds (in which some listeners were genuinely hoodwinked into thinking Martians were attacking Earth). It concerns teenage switchboard operator Fay (the superb Sierra McCormick) and confident, charismatic radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz, also superb). As the only two individuals in a small New Mexico town who aren’t interested in the evening’s high school basketball game, they discover and investigate strange audio frequencies, mysterious power outages, and peculiar reports of “something in the skies”.
As calling cards go, this demonstrates Andrew Patterson’s talent in multiple areas (including screenwriting, a credit he shares with Craig W Sanger). Directorially, the film showcases a mixture of audacious long takes – one in particular involving a camera travelling from switchboard to basketball game to radio station is great bit of cinematic showing off – as well as skill with lengthy dialogue sections. An early scene in which Fay and Everett banter about everything from radio interview techniques to predictions of future scientific breakthroughs is a sheer delight, with Sorkin-esque rapid fire dialogue breathlessly delivered, whilst the camera follows the pair with equal breathlessness, hurrying to keep up. Said dialogue includes amusingly off the mark predictions about self-driving smart cars by 1990 (which Everett deems plausible), and rather more prescient forecasts concerning mobile phones (which Everett doesn’t deem plausible – not the first time he’ll prove inaccurate in his instincts, as he initially believes Soviets to be behind the mysterious events).
Another lengthy monologue late in the film proves particularly effective; elderly, shut-in Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer) delivers an eerie, unsettling account concerning both the central mystery and her experience as an unwed teenage single-mother several decades earlier. Although not a preachy film, The Vast of Night gently reminds viewers that in that era, people like Mabel simply wouldn’t be believed. In the same way, another key supporting character, Billy (Bruce Davis), thinks his experiences will be discredited because he is black. He even points out that the authorities ensured compartmentalised military tasks in Roswell type missions were undertaken by non-whites, because if they decided to spill the beans, they wouldn’t be believed.
Visual effects are limited but well done. Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer contribute an innovative music score, and the sound design also proves an essential ingredient. The production design oozes authenticity; analogue broadcast equipment and vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders become essential iconography in Fay and Everett’s investigation. Yet despite occasional echoes of American Graffiti, Patterson deftly avoids rose-tinted nostalgia.
The Vast of Night closes on an enigmatic, melancholy note that cleverly side-steps Spielbergian cliché, whilst remaining unsettling and somewhat ambiguous. It may be a bit too quirky for some tastes, especially in the more dialogue heavy sections, but there is still much to praise and recommend. In short, the film delivers the genre goods with wit and verve. Patterson will definitely be a name to watch out for in future.
UK Certificate: 12
US Certificate: PG-13