Movie Guru: ‘The Vast of Night’ isn’t like any other sci-fi movie you’ve ever seen, and that’s a good thing
“The Vast of Night” feels like a science fiction movie made by someone who’s never seen a science fiction movie. Surprisingly enough, that turns out to be a good thing.
The movie, which started streaming on Amazon, is a fantastically fresh take on a classic genre. It re-invents the cinematic wheel in the best possible way, playing with everything from camera angles to pacing to make something that feels both utterly familiar and brand-new in the same moment. The approach also gives “The Vast of Night” a strong element of suspense, even horror, made only more unsettling by strong, likeable performances from the two fresh-faced leads. We get attached to them, which only make us that much more worried.
Telling you too much about the plot would spoil some of the experience, but I will tell you that the movie is set a small New Mexico town in a (possibly alternate universe version) of the 1950s. Two teens, one a switchboard operator and the other the local radio DJ, hear a strange noise coming through the phone/radio lines. They spend the rest of the movie trying to figure out what it is.
It’s not the plot, however, that makes this movie truly interesting. We’re introduced to the two main characters in the middle of a busy high school getting ready for a basketball game, scenes full of long tracking shots that leave us following characters around like a faithful dog. It puts you right in the middle of everything, just another person wandering the high school, but the lack of height makes you feel oddly helpless and out of control of the situation. This will come into play even more later.
First, however, come the introductions. It takes a little while to pick the two main protagonists out of the crowd, though the movie eventually sends them off talking together. What we get of their backstories only comes out through conversation with them and others, but that’s less important than the relationship that we see between them. We’re never told the facts of the situation – how long they’ve known each other, how they met, etc. – but their interaction speaks volumes about who they are to each other. Flashes of response from other people add another interesting potential layer.
This relationship enriches all of their interactions when the plot later comes calling, adding an emotional element to the slowly ratcheting tension. In some ways the movie seems quite slow at first, and it might be for some people, but the movie manages to make the waiting nerve-wracking rather than dull. You still feel like you’re in the middle of everything, often just behind and too short so you feel helpless, and the long tracking shots leave you feeling desperate for a moment to breathe.
The one bit of the experiment I wasn’t as fond of was the way director Andrew Patterson was so insistent on couching it as an episode of an in-universe “Twilight Zone” knockoff. It was an unnecessary level of removal, and made the beginning of the movie feel even slower than it needed to be.
Still, it’s a small quibble. If you’re looking for something different in the realm of sci-fi, “The Vast of Night” is something you definitely don’t want to miss.
The Vast of Night
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Written by: James Montague and Craig W. Sanger
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan and more
Grade: Three and a half stars
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.