A film review by Craig J. Koban June 10, 2020

THE VAST OF NIGHT jjj

2020, PG-13, 91 mins.

Sierra McCormick as Fay Crocker  /  Jake Horowitz as Everett  /  Gail Cronauer as Mabel Blanche  /  Cheyenne Barton as Bertsie

Directed by Andrew Patterson  /  Written by Craig Sanger and James Montague

ORIGINAL FILM

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. 

Patterson begins 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 novel. 

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? 

Something also 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. 

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