November, 1958. Cayuga, New Mexico. Population: dwindling.
“I think at the lowest level, they send people on errands, and play with people’s minds. They sway people to do things, and think certain ways—so that we stay in conflict, focused on ourself—so that we’re always… cleaning house, or losing weight, or dressing up for other people. I think they get inside our heads and make us do destructive things, like drink and over eat. I’ve seen good people go bad, and smart people go mad.”
They? Who? Alien invaders, that’s who, the kind that make you get in your car and drive real far and drive all night and then see a light and it comes right down and lands on the ground and out comes a man from Mars…
Martians, that’s what we’re talking about here. Little green men from outer space.
Owing much to Rod Serling’s classic ‘Twilight Zone, and a whole lot more to Leslie Stevens’s ‘Outer Limits (especially the plot of its “The Galaxy Being” episode), The Vast of Night is a nostalgic throwback to classic science fictioners of the 1950s, there’s-something-out-there films that starred the likes of Michael Rennie and James Arness and Gene Barry. It’s part Close Encounters‘, part Super 8, yet it somehow manages to feel satisfyingly unique. For some odd reason, this Amazon original has polarized audiences more than any recent film I can think of:
“A masterpiece. Pure sci-fi lovers will be in heaven.”
“Spectacular! A must-see!”
“Tedious nonsense, avoid at all costs.”
“Wow! Fantastic film making – amazingly good.”
“The Vast of Suck.”
Irrespective of how one might feel about its vastness (of suckiness or spectacularness), the real stars of the show are Sierra McCormick, who plays tenacious teen switchboard operator Fay Crocker, and her nerdy, WOTW DJ pal Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a cigarette forever in the corner of his mouth. Despite that affectation the guy never actually stops talking, so much so that I had to pause the movie 20 minutes in out of sheer exhaustion (exhilarated, not indignant, take note). Fay and Everett just go at it without let-up, yackety yack, a mile a minute. She’s bought one of those new fangled Westinghouse tape recorder gizmos from the Montgomery Ward catalog and he’s asking her about it.
“All right. Play me something. What have you recorded?”
“Well nothing. Yet. I mean, I didn’t want to mess something up.”
“So you haven’t recorded anything?”
“No, I didn’t want to mess something up.”
“Wait. You have a brand new tape recorder and you haven’t been curious enough to push a button?”
That extended scene, with its accompanying chatter, goes on for quite some time. And the stylistic flourishes don’t end there. A 9-minute unbroken take of Fay manning the switchboard; occasional cuts in and out of television screens showing the Serling-esque Paradox Theater; pitch black, audio-only segments; multiple swooping drone shots that hug the ground through town, right into the high school gymnasium where most of the townsfolk are congregated for the big basketball game… all cement the realization that first-timer Andrew Patterson’s film doesn’t simply favor style over substance, but that style is the film’s substance, as much as the mysterious phonics transmitted over the airwaves that cause Fay and Everett—like this viewer, rapturously agog—to sit up and take notice.
The Vast of Night is smart and retro and a little bit spooky at times and it promises big Things to Come from director Patterson. Science fiction hasn’t been this fun, frankly, since Donald Moffat’s character loses it in John Carpenter’s other-worldly The Thing: “I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS <EXPLETIVE> COUCH!”