The Vast of Night is a brilliant example of what can be done on a small budget with a great story. It manages to take a familiar sci-fi story and elevate to new heights – with a dialogue heavy character drama that is rich with beautiful cinematography that enhances the unfolding mystery.
The Vast of Night is set in the 1950s in Cayuga, New Mexico, where a big basketball game is happening. We follow Fay who is a switchboard operator but also dreams of a career in radio. After meeting up with Everett, who works out the radio station, to test out her new tape recorder, she returns to her job on the switchboard. It is soon after her shift has started that Fay hears a mysterious signal coming over the radio and telephone line.
Perplexed by this signal, and with her calls dropping, she contacts Everett to figure it out. Everett also intrigued by this sound, broadcasts the audio on live air, asking for any information about its origin. After a call that relays a story that offers even more questions for both of them, they realize this signal has the potential to change their lives forever.
This is definitely not an original story, but what makes this film so effective, is the way this story is told. No moment throughout this film is wasted, with each scene shot with intensity and precision that adds to gravitas of this elusive mystery signal. Andrew Patterson, uses the setting of the night to his full advantage. Every shadow that falls upon the scene, adds the eeriness that is present through The Vast of Night. There are many things to praise about this movie, but the camera work throughout is absolutely top-notch.
Starting with a long take that follows the main characters around the town, as they test out the new tape recorder, the audience though involved – are really just flies on the wall watching everything unfold. But it is this distance that we start with, that makes the later close-up shots so profound. Patterson knows where to direct our attention and when, we don’t seem to have any choice in the matter. Thankfully, it is all for our benefit.
This is perhaps most expertly done in the close-ups of characters, who are relaying their tragic pasts that are somehow involved with this mysterious signal or listening with rapt attention. We only see the sides of their face with drawn out scenes, that would probably make most other filmmakers uncomfortable.
But like all things in life, we like to mimic (which Patterson manipulates to great effect) so when the characters are paying close attention, so are we. In each of the scenes featuring a character listening or relaying a story, the camera ever so slowly zooms in on their face. I found myself entranced by these scenes, where I became as hyper focused on everything, until I was sitting on the edge of my seat.
Even though The Vast of Night is a sci-fi mystery thriller, it is also a character driven story. All the events are shown through what the characters are feeling or experiencing, rather than flashy visuals. It is through the dialogue heavy scenes that permeate this movie, that we explore the mysteries of life beyond our small blue planet. The Vast of Night, is very reminiscent of early sci-fi film and TV that asked this question, and they don’t try to hide it. They lean into their roots, whilst adding a fresh twist on a familiar story.
Both the actors, Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz are absolutely phenomenal in this, giving us engrossing performances that you draws you further into the movie. Their banter throughout is teeming with charming chemistry, that makes you feel connected to them and their story. The characters’ idealism and hope, is something you can relate to. Before anything is even remotely in the sci-fi realm, you feel like you know and have met their characters before. But when things start to get really interesting, every facial expression of both McCormick and Horowitz speak volumes to what the characters are feeling in that very moment.
The Vast of Night’s ending does not have a big aha moment, but if you are expecting that, you probably were watching the wrong movie. The success of this movie, is that even though you can mostly predict what is going to happen, it is still an interesting movie to experience. It is not about the ending or the beginning, but the journey to discover that makes The Vast of Night so compelling.
The Vast of Night is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.