The Vast of Night ★★1/2
Available: Streaming on Amazon Prime; see JustWatch here for any updates.
Comforting sci-fi of the past
If you dig deep enough, there’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, something out of Trump’s rural America: two protagonists—a 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old guy, both smart, competent, and curious—wanting more from life than their small town and their social class can provide. She’s the town’s night-time switchboard operator, taking over from her mother who works two jobs; he’s a fast-talking hipster type with a local radio show. Their dreams are small: she would like to manage a larger switchboard; he wants to move on to a larger radio station. Both want to “get away from here,” here being their isolated town in the Southwest where high school basketball is the main event. Unable to inhabit these imagined futures, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) transfer their desires to the possibility that there is “something out there,” a possibility that confirms their specialness and offers them stimulation and opportunity in a way the real world doesn’t.
If nostalgia for Serling’s world is what you crave, “The Vast of Night” will be satisfying.
Right, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick) listening at the radio station WOTW for "what's out there."
To get at that “kernel,” you’re treated to a time warp back to Rod Serling’s early 1960s’ TV series, “The Twilight Zone.” Significant portions of “The Vast of Night” are presented in fuzzy black-and-white television mode, as if they were part of the series, Serling’s voice and all, only here the show is called “The Paradox.” If nostalgia for Serling’s world is what you crave, “The Vast of Night” will be satisfying. You can play the game of “name that sci fi” with all the hidden callouts (the radio station call letters WOTV are meant to evoke “War of the Worlds”).
If your dreams are more complex, if you want the story to be ironized and move toward camp, “The Vast of Night” won’t be enough. It’s predictable, derivative, and clichéd. Although set in the post-Sputnik era, the story—and its location in New Mexico—earnestly invokes the UFO scares of the late 1940s and early 1950s, including a presumed landing in Roswell, NM in 1947. It joins a list of films and TV episodes dealing with extraterrestrial life that runs into the hundreds and includes “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), a film with a spaceship that hovers like the one in this film and, like this film, features alien sounds and the threat—or is the hope?—that humans will be spirited up to the ship and whisked away. The radio station where Everett works looks like it’s straight out of “American Graffiti” (1973).
The cinematography and editing are at once mildly creative and mildly frustrating. We don’t see the faces of some characters full-on until well into the scenes. Overly long and tedious takes, culminating with a very old woman (Gail Cronauer) telling an interminable story that doesn’t intersect factually with the main plot, try one’s patience.
There are a few stabs at contemporaneity. One of the callers into the radio show, who professes to know something about what’s out there, is Billy (voice of Bruce Davis), who reveals himself to be black and ex-military. He and his fellow blacks and Mexicans were used, he says, to dig underground storage areas (cue modern conspiracy theory) for mysterious objects, a process that sickened them. Why use blacks and Mexicans? “Because no one would believe us,” says Billy.
McCormick and Horowitz can't save this film, but they are entertaining and credible in their disparate roles.
McCormick and Horowitz can’t save this film, but they are entertaining and credible in their disparate roles: she as the earnest, excitable, and determined explorer of the unknown, stimulated by her own reading of futuristic stories in “Popular Science” and the like, he as the techno-nerd whose skills with a tape recorder and at interviewing allow the duo to pursue their adventure. Fay and Everett take turns being aggressive and cautious, believing in and denying the story they’re pursuing. What they don’t have is mutual attraction. Given Fay’s age, that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t keep director Andrew Patterson from “making the couple”—indeed, making the family, complete with a child. A curious ending to a film we’ve all seen before. At least they finally “get away.”
The film has attracted something of a cult following.
“The Vast of Night” is a first feature from Oklahoma City commercial director Patterson, who financed the $700,000 cost himself. Filmed in four weeks with relatively unknown actors, mostly from the stage and Texas (where it was made), it has attracted something of a cult following, with acclaim in ratings and at a few film festivals (after being rejected by 18). Despite its limitations, it appeals to the desire to escape the current morass of politics and moralism and retreat to the titillation of the unknown and to comfortable, age-old conspiracies. There’s something out there, and it could change your life.
Director: Andrew Patterson
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis (voice of)
Awards: 10 nominations, 4 wins, including second place for the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness (usually in the horror genre) People’s Choice Award.
Runtime: 91 minutes