'The Vast Of Night' Riffs On Rod Serling's 'Twilight Zone'
Amazon Original offers low-key sci-fi tale that builds sense of dread
From its opening frames "The Vast of Night" makes clear its roots are buried deep in Rod Serling’s "The Twilight Zone." There is a TV that looks both old yet oddly stylish, like something that would lovingly be called vintage and would cost a lot of money in the future. On this TV a black and white show opens with a Serling-like narrator telling us: "You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten; a slipstream caught between channels; a secret museum of mankind; the private library of shadows; all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth... you are entering 'Paradox Theater.'"
The black and white fuzzy TV image transitions to muted, nostalgic earth tones in a New Mexico town of Cayuga (that was also the name of Serling's production company) in the late 1950s. As a high school basketball game attracts the attention of almost everyone in town, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick) head to work. He's is a confident young DJ on the lookout for any kind of story he can break on the air at WOTW (no coincidence those call letters evoke "War of the Worlds") and she is a 16-year-old switchboard operator who's just a little sweet on Everett and a possible journalism career.
The film takes place in one night as Fay alerts Everett to a strange sound, possibly a radio frequency, that they feel the need to investigate. Their quest to unravel the mystery uncovers a story of UFOs and extraterrestrials.
Andrew Patterson’s creepy, low-key sci-fi film plays almost like a radio drama with the sound of the human voice and sound effects driving the story more than action or CGI. The scene where Fay hears the strange sound is nearly ten minutes of just her sitting at the switchboard and it's completely riveting. It made me think of "Pontypool," which all takes place in a radio station as an infection spreads in the surrounding community. In "The Vast of the Night" we hear people describe things we can't see and like a radio drama it forces us to engage more as we fill in the details with our imaginations.
It's a clever and refreshing approaching to telling a rather familiar sci-fi tale of aliens living above us. The film’s smartly crafted to embrace its limitations and turn them into advantages. Eschewing big budget special effects, it instead focuses meticulous care on costumes, sets, sound design, pacing, and performance. The luxurious slow build hearkens back to a different era of storytelling and of American life. Things may unfold slowly but the film is a compact 89 minutes in which no time is wasted. By letting events roll out at an unhurried pace, Patterson is shrewdly building a sense of dread that proves effective. This is not a film about jump scares or gore, it's about evoking a sense of those 50s paranoid sci-fi films.
By focusing on two characters and limited locations, the film also creates a sense of isolation. These two are the only ones investigating this strange sound. The two people they speak with have been living isolated lives afraid to talk about what they know. All this has an added and unexpected edge as we sit sheltering at home feeling anxious about the coronavirus pandemic and what dangers — real or imagined — may be waiting for us as the country starts to reopen.
The film has a retro feel but it also has a strong sense of the world we live in today. At one point a woman explains her theory about what is hovering above us all the time and suggests that these extraterrestrials are controlling us and experimenting with us, causing people to behave in inexplicable ways, causing nations to go to war without real cause, making good people turn bad. So if as you scroll through the news stories or wade through social media and feel baffled by how badly and irrationally humans seems to be behaving then maybe this offers an explanation.
"The Vast of Night" begins streaming on Amazon on May 29 so sit back and enjoy some good old-fashioned storytelling.