THE VAST OF NIGHT ½
2020, PG-13, 91 mins.
Sierra McCormick as Fay Crocker / Jake Horowitz as Everett / Gail Cronauer as Mabel Blanche / Cheyenne Barton as BertsieDirected by Andrew Patterson / Written by Craig Sanger and James Montague
There have been
innumerable science fiction films over the years that have dabbled into
close encounters and/or invasions by extra-terrestrial visitors, but very
few are done with such stark filmmaking economy and eerie atmosphere like
director Andrew Patterson's THE VAST OF NIGHT, which premiered last year
on the indie film festival circuit and is now available to stream via
Amazon Prime. So many
examples of this genre typically favor mindless action/spectacle and
numbing visual effects, but the Oklahoma filmmaker shot this one on the
micro budgeted cheap ($700,000) in just four weeks, but the end results
speak compelling volumes. THE
VAST OF NIGHT is superlative debut effort for Patterson, boasting a 1950s
era setting and aesthetic, some gripping performances, and some of the
most dazzling camera work I've seen in a feature film - expensive or not -
in quite some time.
the film modestly, but in a manner that really wears its influences on its
sleeves. The opening image is
that of a period specific black and white TV set, and the camera slowly
and methodically zooms into it to show what appears to be a very TWILIGHT
ZONE-esque program beginning. The
ominous voice explains "You are entering a realm between clandestine
and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels..." and so forth.
The show within the film, the wonderful named PARADOX THEATRE, starts to
broadcast its night's episode, "The Vast of Night," followed by
the TV screen filling the entire frame and segueing into the action of the
film itself. Obviously,
Patterson is paying loving homage to the Rod Serling show of yesteryear in
question, not to mention many others that followed it, like THE X-FILES.
It would be easy to see this bookended technique here as a bit
on-the-nose and gimmicky, but I think it works wonders at establishing the
historical particulars of the film, not to mention the entire
paranoia-fuelled Cold War vibe of the times in question.
We are then
quickly introduced to the main protagonists in Patterson's narrative (BTW,
he wrote the film under the dual pseudonym Craig Sanger and James
Montague) in one long and patient sequence that observes them during what
seems like a mundane evening together.
They are Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), the
former being a radio DJ and the latter being a switchboard operator. Both live in the quaint town of Cayuga, New Mexico and take
pleasure in each other's company and conversations, with this night in
particular revolving around a newfangled tape recorder that Fay has come
into possession of. The
16-year-old girl is enamored with tech, which may or may not have
something to do with her job. When
Fay hustles off to her shift at the local switchboard she begins to notice
some decidedly strange things occurring.
Firstly, there are unexplainably weird noises being picked on her
end on the lines. Secondly,
many of her calls are being cut off. Thirdly and most alarmingly, one woman that calls in and
hysterically relays that unidentifiable objects are hovering in the night
skies above her. Fay quickly
springs to action and calls Everett, and the two team up to investigate
while the remainder of the town is inside and watching the local school's
first major basketball game. Predictably,
the strange occurrences are clearly not of this world.
It's pretty clear
early on that THE VAST OF NIGHT is poised to become about an alien landing
and possible invasion, but its story is not painted with the same
obligatory genre brush strokes that we're all abundantly familiar with.
Yes, Patterson's film is set during a decade that churned out
multiple sci-fi alien-centric films, not to mention that it's another in a
long line of films concerning strange foreign objects hovering over quaint
towns that elicit equal parts awe and scares in its inquiring citizens.
This has all been done countless times before in too many films to
count, but Patterson is keenly aware of that.
He never lets THE VAST OF NIGHT PLAY out like another INDEPENDENCE
DAY or, hell, even another CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.
The basic roadmap of Patterson's film seems like so many others,
but the journey he takes viewers on it is creatively far more compellingly
In terms of his
execution, it should be noted that there are virtually no major action set
pieces in Patterson's film and next to no VFX sequences (sans for the
finale, more on that in a bit). THE
VAST OF NIGHT is an exceptionally rare sci-fi outing that generates
nail-biting suspense and scary intrigue primarily through character
dynamics and dialogue exchanges. We learn of what's happening to this town and the strange
phenomena that's infiltrated it via Fay and Everett's conversations with
each other and with other townsfolk.
In one chilling scene, Everett - while on the air - speaks with a
mysterious caller that claims to have evidence to support that, yes,
aliens are most definitely among us.
There's a later and equally potent moment when Fay and Everett meet
and interview a local woman that also claims to know what's happening to
their hometown. These scenes collectively foster an uneasy aura of dread and
anxiety in the film that works wonders to establish the entire sense of a
foreboding atmosphere of the unknown.
THE VAST OF SPACE is proof positive that - when some genre films
are concerned - less is usually more.
And how many other alien invasion films make viewers on edge
throughout with the implied presence of the E.T.s in question and without
actually showing us them?
has to be said about this film's bravura technical merits as well.
THE VAST OF SPACE was made on a scant budget that probably wouldn't
have covered the catering budget of any recent MCU effort, but that's not
so say that Patterson's film looks cheap and amateurish.
Far from it. Working
with cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz, Patterson bestows upon us multiple
show stopping sequences of how-did-they-do-that moviemaking ingenuity.
One has to literally be seen to be believed.
It occurs during the middle of the film and involves what looks
like one long and unbroken tracking shot that seems like it goes through
the entirety of the town with limitless speed and flawless fluidity.
It goes through fields, neighborhoods, parks, streets, past
multiple buildings and businesses, and then finally through the gym's
parking lot and into the auditorium itself where the aforementioned
basketball game is playing...only then to leave and venture outside again.
Patterson obviously didn't have the resources of, say, a Sam Mendes
on 1917 (which also made use of one take
shots), but THE VAST OF SPACE is just as visually dynamic and mesmerizing.
Patterson even gets ambitious with long takes with very little
camera movement, like a virtuoso near ten minute one shot scene showing
Fay frantically at her switchboard deducing that not all is normal and
well in Cayuga. When one considers that this film cost less than a million
dollars it makes what Patterson has achieved here all the more astounding.
I would say,
though, that aspects of Patterson's shooting style - initially at least -
take some getting used to. The
opening scenes of the story are frustratingly shot with medium and long
shots and no close-ups, which makes it awfully hard to even see Fay and
Everett up close to size them up early on (or, to even differentiate them
from other townsfolk). However, this style does have the positive side effect of
making the later close-ups really pop with an intimate immediacy.
Still, not all of THE VAST OF NIGHT is air tight in execution and
its budget does show itself at times (many moments are very dark, dim, and
severely lacking in proper lighting, not to mention that the color grading
is rather garishly muted and unattractive throughout...whether this was a
decision born out of economic necessity or the product of bad choices by a
novice director is up for reasonable debate).
Still, it's really difficult to overlook Patterson's audacious
imagination and fearless ambition with this picture.
Plus, the characters here are superbly written and wonderfully
performed, and McCormick and Horowitz have so much unforced and natural
chemistry throughout that they help make up for some of the film's
shortcomings. It's also nice
to see two teen characters in a film like this that are not being
navigated towards any romantic angles, which is refreshing.
THE VAST OF NIGHT culminates with a feverously creepy and intense climax, during which time it manages to offer up some answers to a few of the story's basic questions as to what's up in town while also not shamelessly holding the hands of audience members, instead trusting them enough to wade through some of the ending's more haunting ambiguities. And it's at this point when you truly gain a sense of the inseparable bond that the two young main characters have as they courageously thrust themselves into the scary unknown. THE VAST OF NIGHT is made with a distinct vision and a sophisticated intelligence that's simply not a large part of modern sci-fi outings. This film reminded me a lot of last year's STARFISH, another avant garde sci-fi thriller being helmed by a rookie director with limited financial resources, but one that crafts an intrepidly unorthodox approach to well worn genre material. It's staggering to think what new filmmaking minds like Andrew Patterson and A.T. White could do with an MCU sized capital in their hands.