“The Vast of Night” is Amazon Prime’s latest feature film and is a pleasing, old-school sci-fi thriller. The plot focuses on teenagers Everett (Jake Horowitz), a local radio DJ, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, as they try to uncover the source of strange sounds wreaking havoc at their respective places of work. Fay is able to obtain a reel-to-reel recording of the sound—a mixture of electrical humming with barely-audible clinks—with which Everett plays on his radio show in order to contact callers who might know what it is. Surely enough, a mysterious person calls in, igniting a trail that ends up pointing to something hovering in the seemingly empty night sky….
Glorious in its nostalgic simplicity, the film is a welcome homage to the golden age of 1950s science fiction, when the sense of adventure and mystery was found in the gradual accumulation of various clues and details, and the thrills came in the form of electronic malfunctions and power outages. It was the slow build-up of slight abnormalities that made those old programs so engrossing, and this film replicates that to a tee. The similarities between this film and its inspirations are openly acknowledged by the filmmakers. Indeed, the story itself is presented as an episode of a fictional anthology TV series entitled “Paradox Theater”, the opening to which is shown on a quaint 1950s television set and, with its opening featuring abstract black-and-white images set to an enigmatic voiceover, is clearly a loving pastiche of “The Twilight Zone.”
Yet, the film also makes its fair use of modern inspirations and innovations. The introduction of the two leads takes the form of fifteen minutes of walk-and-talk action featuring wisecracking dialogue. What with the rapid-fire delivery and overlapping of numerous subjects within the same conversations, it feels like something penned by Aaron Sorkin, and would surely have never found its way into a 1950s television show.
Additionally, the film utilizes a significant number of long one-takes, some of which required technology that simply did not exist back in the 1950s. Such sequences were heavily involved tracking shots that would take place in different settings throughout the film. Perhaps the most effective of these was the slow follow shot of the two leads as they slowly snaked their way through a dark house, the only sound a woman quietly muttering an unknown language. All of the elements—the dark surroundings, the creepy voice, and the camera being forced to remain at the same pace as the characters’ cautious walk—combine to impart a stomach-clenching suspense. Other long moving one-takes, though, were not as successful, particularly when the camera would launch from one location, swerve its way through the entire town and then end up at the new point of interest. These would merely interrupt the story without adding any tension or other contribution to the tone; they felt like unnecessary demonstrations of technical bravado—style in lieu of substance.
In contradistinction, the film also features a lot of one-takes where the camera does not move at all, such as when Fay has to deal with the switchboard acting up or when an elderly woman (Gail Cronauer) tells of her witnessing what she believes were alien abductions. The effect of this is to lure the audience in and make them as involved as the characters are; by forcing the audience to scrutinize the same details and dialogue on which the characters are focusing, the filmmakers are able to craft a heavily involving story. It is extraordinarily simple, yet undeniably effective. These scenes should also catalyze immense praise for the actors involved, who are able to deliver believable and intense performances while being rooted to one place.
The last thing to mention about this film is its depiction of 1950s America, and how it not only instills verisimilitude by showcasing the Cold War paranoia surrounding the Soviets, but how it also demonstrates the hardships of marginalized groups—e.g., several plotlines include how the military utilized African-Americans to work on UFO coverups because they knew that no one would believe them due to stigma, and, similarly, how no one would take a woman seriously because she had a child out of wedlock. The film represents how such small-mindedness existed then and that how similar prejudices still exist today, but it does not go beyond that. The film merely acts as a mirror affirming the existence of American biases past and present without any deeper analysis. Intellectually, it falls short of the high-minded satire, subversive commentary, and warning-like premonitions that defined the best of shows like “The Twilight Zone.” That is disappointing, although it does not destabilize the film’s ultimate standing as an intelligent sci-fi thriller.
Overall, “The Vast of Night” is an able blast-to-the-past, with legitimate thrills and mystery.