Score = 3 Stars (***) Out of 4 Stars
A cash-cow genre with a multitude of sub-categories (aliens, superheroes, supernatural, fantasy, time travel, horror, et. al.), science-fiction has and always will be a dependable staple for the movie industry. Generally cheap to make and almost always making a tidy profit, sci-fi also enjoys a rabid core fan base which will see anything with a science fiction angle.
Limited only by a writer’s imagination (hopefully checked with logic), the bounds of believability for sci-fi enjoy a wider berth than other genres, yet the lion’s share of what major studios produce these days has already been done in various forms many times before and in some ways “The Vast of Night” is no different.
However what it may lack in originality is more than made up for an almost purposeful abandonment of the sort of technological overload and whiplash editing which generally makes most modern sci-fi play out more like a high-end interactive video game without the interactive element.
Divided into three distinct sections, the movie takes place on a single late autumn night in the fictional city of Cayuga, New Mexico in the early 1950s. The town’s sole high-school is hosting the first basketball game of the new season and everyone in town is there.
Everyone that is, save for plucky Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the chain-smoking Everett (Jake Horowitz). She’s a part-time telephone operator and likely a freshman; he’s a night-fly disc jockey and probably a senior.
Fay and Everett meet up at the gym during the pregame but leave soon after and spend the next 15 minutes talking to the locals in the parking lot and the nature of their banter indicates Cayuga is a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
During this stretch and the following quarter hour, the pair never stops talking and deliver overlapping dialogue at such a rapid breakneck pace, you get the feeling the screenplay could have been penned by David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin and perhaps directed by Robert Altman.
Working on their first feature together, writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger and director Andrew Patterson display the assurance of seasoned pros. The only indicators that this is a rookie effort are the shoestring budget and the lack of a big-name cast which, in some ways, is a major plus.
The entire first act is done with a single shot and the camera becomes an ominous silent character which turns otherwise throwaway exchanges into a foundation for something far sinister.
The phone and radio stations are a stone’s throw away from each other – something which comes in handy in the second act. The filmmakers take even more chances by switching over to traditional camera angles, giving the two leads far less to say and filling most of the time with a lengthy story delivered by a disembodied man on the phone.
His name is Billy (voiced by Bruce Davis) and he speaks with a tentative draw, claiming he’s got nothing to hide and maybe he doesn’t, but his calls keep ending abruptly.
By this point in the 89 minute affair, we’ve got two chunks of a movie which have little to do with each other and the sci-fi content has barely registered. Those looking for big thrills and chills and others perhaps lacking patience are going to find the entire venture to be a huge waste of time. These impressions will be given further credence with the arrival of Mabel (longtime character actress Gail Cronauer) at the start of the third act.
Beginning in the same manner as Billy, Mabel has a similar tale of menace and woe, but when she shows up in the flesh, the movie finally hits full stride, but still in a slightly stilted, highly atypical manner. Some questions are answered yet more are brought up and it’s pretty clear even the ending will not sufficiently clear everything up – and that might just be the point.
When all is said and done, "The Vast of Night" is movie where the journey is the destination.
Throughout the narrative, Patterson distorts the images to make it appear we’re watching it on a really bad black and white tube TV and the movie starts as an episode of "Paradise Theater" which we know is a direct rip-off/homage of CBS's "The Twilight Zone" because we hear narration by an announcer sounding an awful lot like Rod Serling.
[If you’ve never heard of Serling, you might want to skip the movie entirely].
The vintage/throwback effect continues with the actual release of the film where it will be made available at select drive-in theaters across the country on May 29, followed by streaming accessibility on Amazon Prime.
The best part of the movie is watching how confident Patterson and the writers are with their material. Going so "vintage" in this manner right out of the gate was a bold move, but then again, most first films only lead to other great ones down the road when big chances are taken early on. It will be interesting to see what Patterson can come with when working with a bigger budget and a broader palate.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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