The shadow of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, and even P.T. Anderson looms large over Andrew Patterson’s debut feature “The Vast of Night,” a small scale sci-fi period piece, set in a fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico when U.F.O. sightings began surfacing in Roswell, New Mexico.
Applying the Spielbergian paradigm of a sci-fi plot-driven narrative with a mystery involved around extraterrestrials, director Patterson has borrowed from the master’s seminal 1977 “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, about a young man who discovers a greater existence other than himself. He also seems to be specifically inspired by some aspects of other 50s and 60s TV shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” while also riffing on radio dramas.
Stylistically the obvious influences derive from John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s directing style that anchors on a lot of skillful and mostly impressive tracking shots and long takes. I will not be surprised if Patterson also watched David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return,” specifically Episode 8 “Gotta Light?” which also takes place in the 50s in New Mexico, which some parts of the episode also takes place at a radio station.
These cinematic references are worth mentioning because while “The Vast of Night” indeed impresses mostly technically and stylistically, there is a huge gap between Patterson’s level of visual and conceptual aspiration and level of accomplishment. While he certainly has talent, and can pull off great visuals on a very restricted budget, the lack of a fully realized or fleshed out screenplay often feels draggy as its lack of character insights is undercut with a script that feels more like earlier drafts than a truly developed one.
Even so, considering the ambition of this sci-fi indie, Patterson should be commended for his directing competence, even if he acquits himself directing an original screenplay by new coming writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Collaboration with another seasoned co-writer would have possibly made “The Vast of Night” a more accomplished and thematically resonant film. Also produced by co-writer Montague, “The Vast of Night” received its world premiere at Slamdance, played at the Fantasia Film Festival, before beginning its release as an Amazon Prime original.
“The Vast of Night,” begins with a DePalmaesque opening with an astonishing tracking shot moving through the gymnasium of a high school. The gym is getting ready for a substantial basketball game, and the film introduces a wide-range of students and residents doing tasks in preparation of the game that night, talking over one another with chaotic, overlapping dialogue that echoes a Robert Altman picture. The opening sequences are astonishing from the beginning, not just for its visually impressive technique, but for it being a genre movie you rarely get such an invitation to the characters. However, the film doesn’t become an ensemble as it promises, but in fact mostly a story between two characters between a local radio DJ, Everett (Jake Harowitz), and a switchboard operator and high school student, Fay (Sierra McCormick) who share a lot of the same passions and interests with radio and its concept and tools.
As the two banter on in wide, softly lit, and beautiful tracking shots that are influenced by P.T. Anderson and even John Carpenter. The two’s exchanges are warm and very inviting in the first half, while the second half begins to settle down and become more static and claustrophobic once radio callers call in, discussing their experiences about an impending alien invasion. The film very much echoes the radio callers in Carpenter’s “The Fog.” Everett and Faye bond together even more in solving this bizarre mystery as if they are creating their own radio sci-fi drama unfolding in real time. The end result is a film that feels very over-directed, under-written, and sadly half-baked, not to say it doesn’t hold some merits because it does.
While being a low-budget sci-fi indie “The Vast of Night ” obviously holds budget restrictions, there are numerous long monologues from callers that inform Everett and Faye of their past experiences on military bases. These revelations from the characters also allow some political subtext to seep into it’s narrative, sadly it falls flat and becomes more lightly sketched and not as fully established as it could have been. For example, one caller (Bruce Davis) calls in Everett’s radio show admitting that he was part of some military experiment involving aliens, but anticipates nobody finding credibility in his story because he’s black and older. While the film holds some subtext that exists within a small town as these calls uncover the racism, communist paranoia, and other emotional hardships that cause people to drift away from reality and into late night radio as coping mechanism to gather supernatural meanings to their existence. yet the film never goes back to explore in detail this subtext that could have blossomed into something more resonant and even subversive for the genre.
In most episodic, fractured narratives that take place in the course of one long night, some segments are more compelling or unravel stronger than others, and “The Vast of Night” suffers from that too. While landing in a 90 mins mark, proclaiming a film that is already short compared to modern standards could have indeed benefited from going back to the editing room, the yarn could have been trimmed up by cutting down the exchange involving the elderly woman discussing her son who she believes was abducted in the sky by space aliens. Then we have the chats and exchanges between Everett and Fay are absorbing, yet their chemistry never fully takes off , and their encounter feels more like geek talk than anything witty or inviting. Or perhaps the film could have benefited with less expository insights and even stronger commentary about a bygone era of radio seemed more welcoming and inviting for people who held trauma before the days that anxiety was co-opted by right-wing talk radio and endless commercial advertisements. Regardless, Even at a short 90 minutes, “The Vast Night” comes off over directed, bloated, draggy, confusing, and just merely engaging.