The Vast of Night, now streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime and showing at some drive-in movie theaters as of May 29, 2020, is a smart and powerful little sci-fi film with compelling characters and disturbing throwback themes.
Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, directed by Andrew Patterson, and starring Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, The Vast of Night is a return to an era of filmmaking when true terror is implied, not shown. That’s not because the technology or techniques aren’t there to show it in detail, but because the detail isn’t the point.
Premiering at film festivals in 2019, the movie is framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-like television anthology and dripping with Space Age details without falling into the trap of satiating nostalgia. Much of the exposition develops at and around a small-town telephone switchboard, with an operator whose only ambition is to graduate to a big-city switchboard. The action takes a while to really get moving, as you might expect in a thriller but it’s worth the time invested in establishing the two main characters, Fay and Everett, before they get drawn into the chilling chase.
Watching Fay intent on pinning down the strange sound she hears, then panic a bit as her calls to neighbors keep getting disconnected, seems silly at first, but as the confusion builds it’s driven home that once there was a person at the heart of the community literally connecting one caller to another. When that person walks away from the switchboard to hunt for clues or check on their own family, it leaves a void just as terrifying as that sudden click followed by long silence on the other end of the line.
Fay and Everett’s puzzle becomes an aural scavenger hunt to piece together the mystery of mysterious radio signals with help from an anonymous caller, forgotten tapes, a random couple and a creepy old lady who mumbles in an unknown and possibly alien language. The filmmaker’s use of long, stealthy camera movements and a spooky black screen give it a bold and cinematic style that befits its aura of eerie unknowns. It’s the perfect little dose of clever adventure to queue up in this time of quarantine and uneasiness.
The Vast of Night pays homage to classic sci-fi TV, the radio shows of old and movies, but manages to strike out an original and surprising path. Fans of The X-Files and Welcome to Night Vale can’t help but let themselves be drawn into this pocket universe of mystery. The truth is out there — but don’t expect to find all the answers, unless the movie spawns a sequel and that would probably spoil the mystery it worked so hard, and effectively, to create.
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