THE VAST OF NIGHT (directed by Andrew Patterson, 89 minutes, USA, 2020)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC The Vast Of Night, the ambitious Amazon Prime sci-fi thriller by first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson, is setup like an episode of a fictional ’50s TV show called Paradox Theater, channeling Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The narrative is set in rural 1950s New Mexico, as it follows a night in the lives of Fay (Sierra McCormick), a comely 16-year-old switchboard operator, and her crush, teenage radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz). It’s the night of the big basketball game and Fay and Everett pick up some strange interference while listening to the radio, plunging the duo down a rabbit hole of phantom frequencies, otherworldly phone calls and, eventually, sightings of mysterious aircraft passing over their small town.
Vast is very reminiscent of Super 8, J. J. Abrams’ super wholesome love-letter to growing up in the ‘80s, but not quite as masturbatory. Nostalgia is a tricky muse, while some filmmakers are able to wield it and keep their relationship with the past in check, we’ve also seen how quickly it can overwhelm a narrative. The script here, while careful not to fall into camp or parody, perfectly mimics the tropes of that era of sci-fi TV, with its slow burn and climactic payoff. Still, Vast impressively crafts its own niche within that by-gone sub-genre, but with a more contemporary voice. It feels authentic, while still managing to comment on the Rockwell-ian charms and teenage doldrums of small town rural ‘50s life, thinly-veiled racism and creeping communism without falling into some half-baked attempt at an overly clever or preachy deconstruction of a much different time.
I have to say the most shocking/endearing thing about Vast is how the film keeps the relationship of the two protagonists grounded, it doesn’t try to rush it into some romantic cliché, and what we get feels legitimately organic. Sierra McCormick as Fay, somehow breaks out a character that I’ve seen in countless episodes of various ‘50s TV effluvia, with small character moments and flourishes that are by turns convincing and endearing. The film also does some interesting things with its UFO mythology as it cannibalizes the tropes we know and have come to expect while managing to give us its own take on the earthly visitations of extraterrestrials. The Vast of Night is a breath of fresh indie air in this quarantine era dumping ground. It’s a masterful first effort, telling a story that we can all kind of relate to right now, of two people trapped in a hopeless place looking for a distraction or simply a way out.