The joy of The Vast of Night is that of seeing a relatively simple concept impeccably executed. Framed as an episode of Paradox Theatre, a clear homage to The Twilight Zone, the film follows two teenagers, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), as they investigate a strange radio frequency that interrupts Everett’s broadcast one evening. Taking place in almost real-time over the course of a single night in the fictional small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, The Vast of Night is a welcome reminder that great sci-fi doesn’t require a huge budget and extensive VFX when it has the fundamentals down pat.
Strange happenings in small-town mid-century New Mexico is hardly a revolutionary concept to anyone for whom the name “Roswell” rings a bell, but The Vast of Night does an incredible job of turning the familiar into something fresh and exciting. Embracing the rhythmic ebbs and flows of almost real-time—of lulls in conversation, in the act of moving from one place to another instead of just cutting from A to B—in a practically hypnotic way, The Vast of Night does a remarkable job of making you feel invested in the characters before the plot even reveals itself.
That this film is the feature debut of writer-director Andrew Patterson is nothing short of astounding (Patterson shares the writing credit with James Montague and Craig W. Sanger). Largely self-taught, with years of experience under his belt developing his craft doing commercial work in his hometown of Oklahoma City, Patterson brings that particularly refreshing strain of ingenuity unique to filmmakers who develop their skills outside of the traditional industry pipelines, and if there’s any justice to the cinematic universe, this won’t be the last we see of him.
Filmmaking is a team effort, and based on the result, everybody involved here brought their A-game. Dim outdoor scenes and harsh indoor fluorescents are hardly the typical building blocks of a visual stunner, but cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz pulls off something particularly spectacular anyway, making excellent use of several mesmerizing extended tracking shots. One tracking shot in particular that races across the mostly empty expanse of nighttime Cayuga reaches how-on-earth-did-they-do-that levels of cinematic wizardry.
The dialogue is solid, and McCormick and Horowitz really bring Fay and Everett to life. While the night may be vast the film’s action is quite compact, with no sub-plots or side-quests to distract from the main action. The co-leads elevate the already solid script with equally solid performances and compelling chemistry. As far as supporting players are concerned, it’s rare that a voice performance steals a scene in a live-action film, but newcomer Bruce Davis manages it anyway as disillusioned war vet Billy, who calls into Everett’s radio show after the DJ asks listeners to share any information they might have about the mysterious frequency.
Johnny Marshall and David Rosenblad’s sound design is practically flawless in a way that contributes a great deal to making The Vast of Night an utterly absorbing viewing experience. Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s eerie score is excellently utilized, swelling at just the right moments and used sparingly enough that it never overwhelms or distracts from the action.
In a way, The Vast of Night recaptures the brilliance of the original run of The Twilight Zone better than either reboot of the series has. While the film has its fair share of visually spectacular moments, it exhibits a fundamental understanding that visual spectacle is neither a match nor a replacement for well-acted, character-focused storytelling and innovative craftsmanship, resulting in a film that feels pleasantly nostalgic and excitingly fresh all at once.
The Vast of Night is available to stream on Amazon Prime starting May 29.
Header Image Source: Amazon Studios