The Vast of Night Review: A New Riff on Classic 50s Sci-fi
“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadows– all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth. You are entering Paradox Theater.”
The Vast of Night opens with this introduction to “Paradox Theater”, a series invented for the film, played on a 50s TV set. We slowly zoom into the TV and enter director Andrew Patterson’s riff on classic 50s sci-fi.
The story takes place in the fictional small town of Cayuga, New Mexico (whose name is taken from Cayuga Productions, Rod Serling’s production company behind The Twilight Zone). Tonight, the town may feel abandoned, but that’s only because everyone is packed into Cayuga High School for the big basketball game. Radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his friend Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, may be the only two sitting the game out while they attend to their night jobs. Their night takes a turn for the bizarre when Fay hears a strange audio frequency and the two begin a search for answers.
As Evertt enters Cayuga High for the first time, we do not cut from one scene to the next, but instead float behind him and smoothly transition from the dark of night into a brightly lit gym. Throughout the film, we find ourselves floating – sometimes from a radio studio to the empty street just outside and sometimes all the way from one side of town to the other. We are observers, enjoying our time in this strange world, brought to you by “Paradox Theater”.
Deliberate choices in the cinematography and editing of this film are apparent throughout. In some scenes, we fade to black and focus only on sound, as though we’re sitting by the radio enjoying DJ Everett’s overnight programming. In another scene, we spend nearly ten minutes in the company of a phone operator as we watch, without cuts, as her night turns from mundane to bizarre and maybe a little terrifying. Nearly every one of these choices, in some way, pulls us further into the world or the characters so we find ourselves wanting answers as much as Everett or Fay.
We spend less than 90 minutes with these characters but thankfully, writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, in their feature film debut, have already mastered the art of show, not tell. As Everett chain smokes and confidently wears his DJ persona he coaches an enthusiastic Fay through using her brand new tape recorder. Everett loves the radio and Fay looks up to him. She also loves reading about science and the future of technology. She trips over her words telling Everett how the year 2000 will look. These moments tell us who these characters are and leave us wanting to spend more time with them. Even if it’s just another few minutes, floating behind them, as they walk across town and discuss Fay’s new tape recorder.
Clearly, there’s a lot to praise in this movie. However, there are a few points it struggles with. Several times, The Vast of Night has us watch as Fay and Everett listen to another character in the hopes of grasping some new perspective on the mystery. This is enthralling and impressive when Patterson pulls it off. However, he may have tried to pull off this magic trick one too many times as I found my mind wandering during one of the film’s later monologues. We also frequently cut to a grainy view of the film, reminding us that in “reality”, The Vast of Night is an episode of “Paradox Theatre”. At times, I wondered if this adds anything to the movie besides the risk of disconnecting audiences as we’re reminded that what we’re seeing… isn’t real. It certainly sets a mood but the film already communicates the 50s sci-fi vibe successfully without these added visual cues.
The best episodes of The Twilight Zone usually involved a satisfying conclusion drenched with irony or a twist that recontextualizes what we saw. The Vast of Night doesn’t reach for the same heights and although it was an entertaining journey, I found it started much stronger than it finished. With a less than satisfying conclusion and a couple of tricks used one too many times, the film lands just shy of greatness. However, the enthralling characters, irresistible mystery, and perfectly captured sci-fi paranoia make this a film worth watching.
If you have any nostalgia for classic sci-fi or just enjoy a good mystery, I recommend checking out The Vast of Night playing now on Amazon Prime.