The Vast of Night review – retro sci-fi is atmospheric and frustrating

This formally strange debut from writer-director Andrew Patterson is an absorbing riff on 1950s sci-fi that doesn't stick the landing

At times it feels like we're living in an age of relentless homages, parodies, and self-referential exercises, where every new genre film is poised as a “subversion” of the same, tired formulas. That's not necessarily a bad thing – genre is made to be played with, though the best meta-inclined movies are those that set out to deconstruct with a purpose: prodding, probing, reinventing, and reimagining as a means of exposing new pathways.

Subversion and homage play a key part of this strange and atmospheric but narratively underwhelming debut from writer-director Andrew Patterson, in which the night – true to the title – appears to stretch outwards with an endless, eerie potential. On the surface, The Vast of Night is an attempt to invoke the sci-fi B-movies of the 50s and the alien-minded films of Steven Spielberg. But to what purpose, exactly, is never made quite clear.

The idea is that we’re watching an episode of a popular, Twilight Zone-esque show called “Paradox Theatre,” the action taking place in a small town in New Mexico, almost in real time. Yet Patterson's film quickly seems intent on avoiding the aesthetic stylings of the types of work he's supposedly trying to ape. It starts with rapid, quick-fire conversation that is borderline impossible to follow – an artistic choice completely at odds with something like the Twilight Zone, as mere snatches of dialogue can be heard and a kinetic camera chases our heroes – Everett, a smart-mouthed local DJ (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), an audiophile and switchboard operator – at ground level in a relentless, one-take shot.

Soon, the footings of a plot emerges, as Fay encounters a strange signal coming over the airwaves and alerts Everett to her cause. Fascinated with the weird and alien sound, Everett plays it over the air during his nightly radio show and asks anyone to phone in if they recognise it. The resulting call – hinting at a government conspiracy and maybe even (you guessed it) alien activity – sends the pair on a desperate race about town, searching for answers.

Considering the low budget, Patterson certainly captures the time and place with an impressive authenticity, in both the production design and era-specific dialogue, though the movie is perhaps best appreciated as an aesthetic exercise: some of the long shots – one, in particular, covering an incredible distance – feel like they're inventing brand new ways to use a camera right there in moment. At points, Patterson juxtaposes these lengthy takes with sudden bursts of quick cutting, though the movie loses some visual coherency in the process.

Later, and as though designed around their existence, the film slows its momentum entirely and lets us listen to a series of eerie monologues that feel ripped right from a radio play. The first time this happens it's genuinely unnerving, as one man calls in to tell the story of the strange events that have shaped his life, Everett listening wordlessly on the edge of his seat, the camera never moving, nor cutting.

If Patterson set out to disorientate, he more than succeeds. But at times his choices prove more frustrating than entertaining, like in moments where the screen blacks out for no apparent reason, leaving just the audio track, or when the film pulls back to remind us that we're watching an episode of “Paradox Theatre.” What use are these flourishes except to break the immersion?

This isn't a missed opportunity, exactly, because The Vast of Night still has the air of a singular vision being competently realised – and to an impressive extent. Seeing it, I was continually struck by the notion of watching a film unlike anything I'd seen before. In and of itself, that's not a feat to be sniffed at. But the film's vague conclusion and formal oddness is sure to divide viewers into two camps: the believers, and those who will be left scratching their heads, wondering what the hell it was they just saw.

The Vast of Night is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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