The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Amazon Prime Video] - THE VAST OF NIGHT | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Amazon Prime Video] - THE VAST OF NIGHT

the vast of night review
In 1950s New Mexico, a radio DJ and a switchboard operator stumble upon extraterrestrial radio signals.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Andrew Patterson

Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Greg Peyton

the vast of night poster

Thanks to a combination of cold war paranoia, the beginnings of the space race and unprecedented technological advances, the late 1950s saw a boom in American science fiction. At drive-ins across America, aliens were landing left right and centre, while on the small screen a host of sci-fi anthology shows battled for ratings, most famously The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Andrew Patterson's directorial debut, The Vast of Night, frames itself as an episode of a fictional '50s anthology show called "Paradox Theater", beginning in a typical suburban living room and tracking into a CRT TV until its black and white image fills the screen, at which point the film switches to colour and begins its tale in earnest.

the vast of night review

We're in small town New Mexico at the tail end of the '50s, and the local populace have gathered en masse for a high school basketball game at the town gymnasium. Unable to attend are teenagers Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who are both busy with their jobs. Everett is a DJ at the town's radio station while Fay operates the area's telephone switchboard.

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When Fay arrives at work she finds incoming calls are dogged by a strange static noise. After contacting other operators and her superiors, she is unable to determine the source of the noise and so asks Everett if he's ever experienced anything like it. The sound is new to him too so he plays it over the airwaves, promising to reward any callers who can identify its origins with a piece of Elvis Presley's carpet. When a former soldier named Billy (Bruce Davis) calls in, it becomes clear that the sound is not of this earth, and something alien is above the skies of Everett and Fay's sleepy little town.

the vast of night review

The Vast of Night boasts the sort of set-up that should result in a cracking piece of low-budget cinema. On paper it reads like a sci-fi companion to Bruce McDonald's Pontypool, in which a zombie apocalypse is presented within the confined walls of a rural Canadian radio station. If The Vast of Night actually was an episode of a mid 20th century TV anthology show it would no doubt confine its action to Everett's booth and Fay's switchboard, but Patterson's film gets restless and attempts to liven things up with detours that ultimately detract from, rather than heighten the tension and uncertainty.

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At one point the camera takes an unedited journey from Fay's switchboard to the crowded local gymnasium, does a couple of laps of the court before hovering out the window and over the Everett's radio station. On a technical level it's a marvel - like a cross between the climax of Antonioni's The Passenger on speed and the stadium sequence from Juan José Campanella's The Secret in Their Eyes - but in simple storytelling terms it adds nothing. Rather, it takes us out of the immediate drama because it's such an attention grabbing piece of filmmaking. Such moments happen several times during The Vast of Night. At regular intervals the colour fades to black and white and the camera pulls back to view the action within the frame of the CRT TV. Every time it happens we're again pulled out of the action. With its full colour, widescreen frame and elaborate tracking shots, The Vast of Night will never be mistaken for a product of 1950s TV, so is there really any point in trying to maintain this artifice?

the vast of night review

The Vast of Night works best when it recognises the intimacy of its story and confines its drama to the interactions between its two young leads. Horowitz and McCormick are magnificent, both talented enough to sell the film's premise without any of Patterson's self-indulgent camera trickery. Early on, much time is spent simply following the pair as they walk from the gymnasium to their workplaces, McCormick's Fay eagerly relating stories of scientific progress she's read in magazines while Horowitz's Everett patronises her in just the way you imagine young men most likely did in such an era. Patterson's film is clearly influenced by John Carpenter' Halloween, and these early scenes reminded me of how Carpenter spends so much time just letting us hang out with his babysitting protagonists on their walk home from school. It's admirable that The Vast of Night commits to presenting the '50s warts and all, and doesn't care if we like its leads or not. Fay is so charming and full of life that she's impossible to dislike, but Everett is a bit of a douchebag. Watching him smugly interact with the local townsfolk suggests a career in politics awaits him at a later point.

Where The Vast of Night fails is in its misguided attempts to fool us into thinking we're watching a production that exists on a far larger scale than the low-key drama it essentially is. For all of its magical unbroken takes and ADD editing, Patterson's film too often relies on forcing us to listen to supporting characters relate expository soliloquies about generic alien encounters. When Billy goes off on recounting his experiences over the phone, Patterson seems so unsure of what he should be showing us that he literally turns the screen blank for several minutes. At this point it becomes all too clear that The Vast of Night is a case of a story being told through the wrong medium. This would make for one hell of a radio drama, but a movie? Not so much.

The Vast of Night is on Amazon Prime Video now.

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