If you are looking for a bit of sci-fi fix during lock-down, then you should definitely check out the newest Amazon Prime original, The Vast of Night. The film was first shown at the Sundance film festival in 2019, and was then brought by Amazon Studios, who are screening it free for anyone with an Amazon Prime subscription. It can also be screened in certain drive-in theatres in the US, and let me tell you this is the sort of movie that is pitch perfect for a drive-in movie watching experience.
The film is inspired by vintage 50s-60s science fiction television, like The Outer Limits and especially, The Twilight Zone, with a healthy dose of The X Files also thrown into the mix. In fact, the whole film is framed as an episode of a The Twilight Zone-type show, called Paradox Theatre – the film begins on a old-fashioned curved television with a fuzzy connection, with an authoritative-like narrator. And, at various times, the film slips back into this just to remind us of that framing device.
The film focuses on the relationship between teenage switchboard operator, Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick) and young radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), two people living in a small, desolate town in New Mexico. The two soon start investigating strange sounds coming out of the radio and switchboard, which leads to them discovering various stories from the townsfolk about close encounters and alien invaders.
Much in the same way as Mulder and Scully in The X-Files, Fay and Everett are contrasting and opposing figures that bicker, argue and have really great chemistry. Fay is more of a wide-eyed, optimistic figure, who wishes to stay in this small town, while Everett is more of cynical, arrogant and charming figure, who is desperate to get away from this town. And, as is the case with The X-Files (the early seasons, especially), the two have brilliant chemistry, but it never really slips into a sexual, or romantic pairing, and is much more effective only hinted at. This small piece of characterisation works really well, and is elevated by great performances McCormick and Horowitz.
The film is a really wonderful jump back into science fiction, a genre of which has gone by the wayside slightly ever since the COVID-19-influenced lock-down began. I mean, since big block-busters have been delayed until September, it’s obviously we would be getting a lot less of effects-driven sci-fi movies. However, The Vast of Night is much more of a low-budget affair for sci-fi movies, centring more on the unseen threat that is looming in the skies.
The film has a very standard, ordinary way of telling it’s story, and never feels the need to be subversive or satirical in any way. The film is unlike the works of filmmakers like, say, Edgar Wright or Jordan Peele, which are trying to balance soft parody with an actual story – this is down-the-middle sci-fi story told completely straight. It is clearly made by someone with a real affinity for this kind of genre, as director, Andrew Patterson (in his directional debut, no less) gets all the details about this era completely spot-on, from the clothes, the cars, the old-fashioned TVs and the old-fashioned circuit boards. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it really does feel like you are transported back to the late 1950s. And, much is the same way as these old-fashioned sci-fi shows, the experience that these kids are going through does feel genuinely wonderful and thrilling. It really evokes the awe and wonder that is felt like watching The X Files and other sci-fi films, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Patterson also has a great visual style to offer, and in particular, the camera work done by cinematographer, M.I. Littin-Menz is very interesting. The film is not afraid to hold a shot for a long time, and gives us many long panning shots and uses of steadicam. For example, there is a shot of Fay doing work on the circuit system that holds for a very long time and doesn’t cut away.
There is also a really extraordinary sequence, in which the camera pans from Fay to Everett, who are on different sides of the town. All done in one long, ambitious sequence, the camera glides through the air, going past people and cars, and brings to mind similar sequences in recent Oscar winner, 1917 and latest Netflix original, Extraction.
There is a mixture between this and some more intricate camerawork. This sort of camerawork feels very inspired by the works of Edgar Wright – it is fast, quick, with loads of edits. It also places a big emphasis on close-ups, like keys going into the ignition, or records being put on a record player. It’s the mixture, between the these two opposing styles – the long, panning shots and the fast, quick edits – that give the film a really unique and interesting visual style.
This visual style is also very arresting in other areas. In another strange sequence, Kay and Everett talk to some on the radio about his close encounter experience, and the film literally cuts to black for quite a long time (about 1-2 minutes long) while the listener talks about his experiences. This is a heavily ambitious, and quite strange moment that just adds to the film’s unique visual style.
Overall, the film’s visual style is fantastic, the cast are really wonderful and it beautifully captures the era it is portraying, but overall, I yearned for more substance. The film is just really an exercise in style – the story does sometimes lack a bit of depth – but saying that, it is a really great exercise in style.
The Vast of Night is overall, a really lovely movie that really clicks. For anyone in the mood for a good, old-fashioned piece of sci-fi, particularly with the lack of sci-fi entertainment at a time like this, The Vast of Night is really worth watching. So, if you have an Amazon Prime account, definitely check this out.