Science fiction is dominated by spectacle.
“The Vast of Night” takes the same minimalist approach, hearkening back to a simplified version of the genre that feels like it’s come straight out of “The Twilight Zone.” The result is a subtle, eerie thriller that feels startlingly intimate – like a campfire ghost story – that will send chills down your spine.
Oftentimes the genre is defined by aliens or space epics, propelling “Star Wars,” “Avatar” and anything else extraterrestrial to massive blockbuster success. But at its core, sci-fi was never required to be flashy. Sometimes the genre’s best entries are toned down dramas under the disguise of robots or spaceships – just look at “Arrival.”
“The Vast of Night” takes the same minimalist approach, hearkening back to a simplified version of the genre that feels like it’s straight out of “The Twilight Zone.” The result is a subtle, eerie thriller that feels startlingly intimate – like a campfire ghost story – that will send chills down your spine.
“The Vast of Night” opens with an old television set and a direct reference to “The Twilight Zone,” as a program called “Paradox Theater” buzzes onto the screen and informs viewers they’re “entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten.” As the camera inches into the TV, we’re transported to 1950s New Mexico at the dawn of the space race.
Nearly everyone in the small town of Cayuga is headed to the high school gymnasium for a big basketball game, but not everyone. Everett (Jake Horowitz), the DJ for the town’s the local radio station, is stuck anchoring the nightly programs, while 16-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) must man the telephone dispatch center all night. But when Fay’s telephones pick up a foreign sound that interferes with Everett’s radio signal, the night takes a turn.
Mysterious callers, Soviet paranoia and strange sightings in the sky lead Fay and Everett across Cayuga as the teenagers investigate the noise’s origin and try to determine whether there really is something greater out there.
With a small budget and an even smaller cast, “The Vast of Night” doesn’t need to rely on heavily edited special effects or massive set pieces to tell an effective story. Instead, first-time director Andrew Patterson crafts a scavenger hunt centered around a simple premise with characters audiences will grow to care for deeply. As the story unfolds nearly in real time across the film’s 89-minute run time, there is no emphasis on backstory or lore – the only focus is here and now, and the thrill of what’s unfolding in front of us all.
While the story may follow a fairly simple structure, Patterson’s filmmaking does not, as he embraces a number of bold decisions behind the lens. One point of emphasis is his reliance on long takes. At one point, while Everett and Fay are investigating the mystery, the camera zooms all the way across town in a singular shot, panning through the city and into the gymnasium packed with people – even venturing onto the court during the game. The shot effectively conveys the duo’s isolation from everyone in town, both physically and when it comes to their understanding of what’s really going on, but it also works to reenergize viewers in between scenes that are heavy with dialogue.
With just two main leads, “The Vast of Night” is largely made up of Fay and Everett’s discussions, which, at times, can drag. During one scene in which a caller joins Everett’s radio program to explain his connection to the mysterious sound, Patterson experiments with another daring technique. The conversation runs about 16 minutes in total, and instead of lingering on Horowitz’s lone reactions to the caller, Patterson cuts to black for nearly five minutes. It was clear this was an intentional decision and not a malfunctioning projector, but the choice still left more confusion than interest in the audio that was still rolling.
Similarly to the inconsistencies in its filmmaking techniques, “The Vast of Night” struggles with pacing, too. After a slow start, things begin to pick up when the caller reveals his theory regarding the noise. The revelation quickly transforms the slow burning film into a race across town, only for it to soon screech back to a halt, burdened with more exposition. Ultimately, the final act raises the tempo once again, but by then, the start-and-stop pacing has damaged the film’s overall momentum.
Despite its inconsistencies, “The Vast of Night” proves to be a chilling and refreshing sci-fi thriller in a time oversaturated with outer space blockbusters.
“The Vast of Night” debuts on Prime Video May 29.
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Charlotte, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.