The Vast of Night: When an Indie Meets Science Fiction
*Mild plot points are discussed below, but not enough to detract first-time viewers.
We’ve seen this story plenty of times. Residents of small-town America, this time in the 1950s, at the height of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, investigate an unusual frequency and object spotted over their land. At the helm of writer/director Andrew Patterson (he uses pseudonyms as a writer), Amazon’s The Vast of Night converges into a specific sci-fi mystery, simultaneously aware of the work it succeeds but also confidently comfortable in its own disposition. Two young and plucky townsfolk in Cayuga, New Mexico (a fictional place, supposedly edging toward Roswell country), one a radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and the second, a switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), uncover a strange audio frequency that permeates their late evening broadcast. Horowitz and McCormick hold great control over Patterson’s rapid-fire and often overlapping dialogue. To the outsider, Everett is a bit of a geek, but in an endearing way. He plays things smooth, and is much too intense about his knowledge and abilities. Fay is sincere, and a little wide-eyed, referring to a completed tape as “biscuits,” leading on Everett’s comparison of recording to “baking biscuits.” Perhaps the character’s comfortably fit into the boxes of the genre, but the entire film is set up as an homage so it fits well.
Patterson’s clever grasp turn the film into a definitive indie, unafraid of its budgetary limitations and unwavering in its scope. The camerawork is simply stunning, with long-takes composing the tensest of scenes. Cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz drives his camera through a sweeping sequence that takes us into the streets and through the town’s packed gymnasium, only to turn back around and trace the steps it set. During conversations and inquiry, the camera holds on our characters; more interested in building rapport than hammering us with clichés. The realism is much appreciated — usually a skeptic of science-fiction, having the chance to sit back and feel like you were living their experience was effective. As with all science-fiction, sound design is paramount, but the confidence in which they employ an experimental soundscape is noteworthy. There is also the period setting, a bold choice for an independent budget, but one that always feels accurate and never gimmicky. Insofar as independent cinema and film debuts go, The Vast of Night is a revelation.
Patterson’s story is framed as an episode of a fictional show, “Paradox Theater,” itself a direct reference to The Twilight Zone. To set this up, there is a Twilight Zone-esque opening with a similar permeating jingle and expositional intro. Occasionally we cut back to a television set, airing our story in a flurry of old-school static, only to push slowly back into the landscape of Cayuga. While it’s clear that Rod Serling’s television show from the setting’s era is one of Patterson’s most significant influences, the story also echoes episodes from The X-Files and films like Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Everett and Fay could serve as a replacement to Mulder and Scully, reversing that show's trope where townsfolk were usually naive and at the mercy of conspiracy.
Patterson’s debut has more to say about the nature of storytelling than it does the nature of extraterrestrials. At all times, it is clear we are watching a film. The dialogue is often contrived and the characters speak in rich accents (do people in New Mexico even sound like this)? The long takes are stylised and we often cut between a live feed of the proceedings and the framed television set. With that, the film manages a striking ode to the very deliberate and fantastic mediums of cinema, radio and television. If he follows the track he’s set up, Patterson’s film career could be bright. When an indie debut manages to masterfully blend the many elements that some directors take years to realise, imagine what he could pull off with a sweet studio budget. No pressure.
The Vast of Night is streaming on Amazon Prime.