The Vast of Night opens on a slow zooming shoot on a 1950s tube television, playing an off-brand rendition of the open for The Twilight Zone that clues us in to the sort of experience we’re in for. This is a story of human dimensions and unknowable reaches, but the purpose is not in the revelation but in the journey to get there. Now, this pretention does not quite live up to the promise of Rod Sterling’s classic series, as The Vast of Night doesn’t really seem to have much of a point beyond its pastiche, but the experience of the journey is still worthwhile, demonstrating a technical potential from director Andrew Patterson that, with the right material, could flourish into a fine career.
The Vast of Night focuses on a small town in rural 1950s New Mexico, where just about everyone is attending the local basketball game save for the town’s switchboard operator Faye (Sierra McCormick) and the radio DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz). Listening to the radio during her shift, Faye hears an odd sound coming from her speakers, and when she hears it again from calls she is attempting to connect, she calls Everett to see if he can use his resources to investigate. Over the course of the evening, the pair will speak with various characters who help to piece together the origins of the strange sound, and what they learn has the power to transform our understanding of our place in the universe.
Now, the ultimate twist of this story is pretty obvious, particularly because as a modern audience we are all overly familiar with the tropes of science fiction that inform this narrative, but the tension of an early space race American community in isolation is palpable through the extended dialogue these characters engage in. Patterson chooses to take very long takes with his actors, allowing them to monologue for long stretches as we simply observe facial ticks and reactions, and the effect is appropriately unsettling given the scope of the consequences of the knowledge they impart. At times it makes the narrative feel like it might be better suited to a radio drama, but it still retains its impact in visual form if only for those organic reactions.
What really shines through, though, is the cinematography of M.I. Lettin-Menz, which when not tied down to the extended monologues is a mobile and engaging tour of the town and its denizens, relying on long shots with swooping perspective changes and masked cuts that are visually stimulating and indicative of an immense reserve of talent and inspiration. When the camera is allowed to cut loose from the admittedly compelling investigation, it breathes life into this setting that’s a testament to the sheer level of commitment on display from this crew, and it makes me wish that The Vast of Night had a better note to end on as a result, one that took advantage of this artistry.
See, despite alluding to The Twilight Zone and constantly cutting back to that faux tube TV perspective to remind of the relationship, The Vast of Night never quite reaches that level of shock value or philosophical preponderance that made The Twilight Zone what it was. The climax is beautiful, to be sure, and the effects work is excellent given the budget on which this film was produced, but it doesn’t have much more meaning than is presented on its face, and the resulting feeling is one of hollowness in the face of the potential for so much more. Still, if one is looking for a mood of existential dread and bragging rights for seeing some of the industry’s next great talents’ early work, The Vast of Night certainly delivers on that front.