With high-concept science fiction narratives seldom getting the spotlight in mainstream cinema, some directors have focused on re-living the genre’s glory days by harkening back to past eras. Films like Super 8, as well as the hit TV series Stranger Things, embraced an 80’s aesthetic in their telling of Spielbergian sci-fi-horror tales. The latest to join the sci-fi nostalgia lineage is The Vast of Night, which cleverly utilizes its 1950’s setting to tell an earnest and engaging radio serial brought to the screen.
The Vast of Night follows Fay (Sierra McCormick), an eager aspiring radio operator working alongside her wise-talking host Everett (Jake Horowitz). While the town is preoccupied with the school basketball game, the two uncover an idiosyncratic radio signal that could lead to something far more sinister.
Operating with a shoestring budget and a relatively unheralded cast, the success of Vast of Night’s unique approach is attributed to writer/director Andrew Patterson’s stellar debut (also served as editor and producer). Patterson displays rare patience in his shooting techniques, utilizing smoothly-constructed tracking shots seamlessly while creating a taut sense of momentum. This approach fits the slow-burn tale to a tee, dulling out nuggets of information throughout while keeping audiences on their toes.
Many films have utilized a nostalgic approach to wear an era’s zeitgeist qualities as a cheap pastiche, but Patterson’s screenplay cleverly weaves 50’s culture into its presentation. As well as capturing the zippy vernacular of the time, Patterson plays off the era’s mixed emotions of the impending future, wistfully embracing the potential of technological advancements while holding a deeply-seated paranoia for what could be out there.
These conceits are baked into every frame of the film, playfully capturing a sense of discovery and danger with impressive results. Credit to stars Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz for balancing this tonal high-wire act, with their easy-going chemistry and sharp banter creating an instantly likable duo on screen. McCormick adeptly captures Fay’s longing for a grander life, while Horowitz elevates the wisecracking archetype with a clever embodiment of that persona.
There’s so much to admire about The Vast of Night, yet its slight missteps constraint the effort from reaching genre classic territory. Patterson’s script features familiar debut faults, including a framing device that goes nowhere despite its intriguing introduction. While I appreciate the slight approach to its singularly macabre vision, the third act ultimately feels rushed and unsatisfying, with the destination being far less absorbing than the journey that proceeded it.
The Vast of Night is a unique low-budget surprise, with Andrew Patterson’s inspired 50s serial approach displaying his bright future in the film industry.
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