An indie sci-fi, reportedly rejected by 18 film festivals before it landed the audience award at Slamdance in 2019, The Vast of Night is the latest buzzy release to be picked up by Amazon Prime. The buzz is justified. Set in a small town in New Mexico and taking place over a single night, The Vast of Night is ‘50s set sci-fi in the spirit of cold war classics like The Blob and Invasion of The Body Snatchers, with a modern twist and an extra meta-layer.
A film within a film, The Vast of Night is framed as an episode of fictional Twilight Zone-esque show Paradox Theater, with occasional camera pull-backs where we see the action in black and white on a small TV. Far from being distancing, it’s a smart device that contextualizes what you’re seeing: a B-movie story with whip-smart dialogue that looks and sounds like elevated arthouse, shot on a shoestring budget. It’s both pure fun sci-fi entertainment and a confident, highly cine-literate debut from director Andrew Patterson who’s absolutely one to watch.
Building slowly and surprisingly dialogue heavy for the genre, the movie follows peppy 16-year-old switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and fast talking radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) working one night during the town’s big basketball game. But when the two discover a strange audio broadcast that coincides with intermittent blackouts it seems like something very weird is going down.
Virtually a two hander, the heart of The Vast of Night is the one-two dynamic of Fay and Everett who fight, flirt, and fire banter at each other in an almost Howard Hawks-homage as they hare about the town trying to uncover exactly what that audio means, encountering and interrogating local characters. Dialogue is often stylized and snappy (though occasionally a bit TOO dense – don’t expect to catch every zinger) and the two have perfect chemistry. Everett is debonair and sophisticated, as he smokes an endless chain of cigarettes. McCormick is a whirlwind in bobby socks pelting about trying to solve the mystery, checking in on her kid sister and learning how to use her brand new recording device while keeping one eye on the switchboard. They’re both a joy to be around.
The world building here is terrific too. For a feature with a budget of less than $1 million the attention to detail is extraordinary. Focusing on limited locations in the town, orientated via a bravura centerpiece tracking shot (partly achieved via an 18-year-old on a go-chart) The Vast of Night has an acute sense of time and place. There’s never any question we’re in late ’50s America, from props, costumes and cars, though the brooding classical score adds depth and portent.
That the story – the very basic narrative – isn’t especially original isn’t really the point. The destination maybe obvious but the journey is far from it. The Vast of Night plays exactly like an episode of The Twilight Zone but the beauty and the ingenuity of the film is that it gives you a sense of living inside that episode. Though there are jokes about what future tech might look like and glimmers of satire here, there’s nothing arch about The Vast of Night – it’s an absolute love letter to ‘50s genre cinema. Patterson makes smart choices with the hard sci-fi elements here too using bits of CGI which don’t jar and not overreaching with what he opts to show.
Despite being overlooked when it was first touted round, post Slamdance The Vast of Night played festivals from Toronto, Montreal and Philadelphia to Edinburgh. Amazon’s patronage also led to the movie getting released on the US Drive-In circuit – there’s surely no better way to watch. Short of that though, this is a perfect streaming movie getaway, a film that will transport you to a different time and place, through the window of your TV and show you old worlds and new colliding in the hands of dazzling fresh talent. The possibilities are vast.