Necessity is the mother of invention, the old cliché goes, and nowhere is that more true than in film-making.
Consider, for example, Steven Spielberg who rather famously struggled with a mechanical shark on the set of his megahit “Jaws.” With the budget ballooning and the mecha-shark malfunctioning, Spielberg re-evaluated his plan and refocused his film on above-water shots and a haunting score. Ironically, and iconically, the mere suggestion of the shark’s presence was far scarier than the shark itself. By the time the shark popped in during the third act, it was almost a disappointment.
All this to say, Spielberg will probably get a kick out of Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut “The Vast of Night,” which waits to showcase its own malevolent creatures- alien invaders from outer space- until just before the end credits.
There’s a practical reason for this – by all accounts, Patterson’s budget was smaller than what those “Avengers” films spent on catering- but “Vast of Night,” like “Jaws” before it, is not a film defined by its limitations, but rather by how much the director did with so little.
You may come to “The Vast of Night” for the aliens, but you’ll stay for the stunning camera and sound work, the charismatic performances and the homages to the golden age of television and radio. It is as well-crafted a film as you’re likely to see this summer, and one that bodes well for the future careers of Patterson, his cast and crew.
Our two leads- radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick)- are introduced in a dazzlingly effective scene as Everett sets up sound recording for a high school basketball game.
In lightning-fast banter that recalls early Aaron Sorkin, Everett and Fay talk about popular science, test out Fay’s new tape recorder and “interview” some of the attendees of the game. As they walk and talk, the sharp script by James Montague and Craig Sanger does a lot of leg work – not only establishing our leads, but also building a setting with an evocative sense of time and place: small-town New Mexico in the late 1950’s.
These first 20 minutes- all filmed by Patterson in a more-or-less continuous take- are so thrilling and technically stunning that you hardly notice that it takes that long for the actual plot to kick in.
But once Fay arrives at her switchboard, things start moving nicely: a staticky electrical humming is coming through the switchboard and Everett’s radio signal. The duo starts playing junior detectives to determine the source of the sound, which may be more otherworldly than they first thought.
The end of this story is more or less a foregone conclusion if you’ve seen any alien invasion film before, but the thrills are less in the destination than the journey. And, boy, what a journey it is.
With a limited special effects budget, Patterson lets his sound designers Johnny Marshall and David Rosenblad take center stage. There are large swaths of movie where the screen goes completely black, and we are allowed to just bask in the sounds of the story- the interviews Everett does on air, the frantic calls Fay receives, the strange otherworldly sounds our duo hears.
“The Vast of Night” evokes old radio plays like Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds” through its copious use of sound effects and monologues and by allowing viewers to imagine the otherworldly threat for themselves. And I’ll be damned if it works as well – if not better- than it did in those good old days.
As good as the sound design is, the camerawork of M.I. Littin-Minz is just as impressive and essential to the movie. Littin-Minz loves his long takes, and they work jaw-droppingly well each time, from that opening scene to another 10-minute uninterrupted take where Fay answers increasingly distressed calls on the switchboard.
Midway through the picture, Littin-Minz throws in a stunningly long tracking shot for good measure – one that will have you wondering just how he did it.
Of course, none of this would matter if we didn’t care about our characters, but both Horowitz and McCormick give instantly endearing performances. McCormick is a compelling lead actress who can convey a lot with limited facial expressions and dialogue. Horowitz evokes both a young Matthew McConaughey and Sam Rockwell, and his natural charisma and chemistry with McCormick carries the movie.
I’ll admit that I lost my patience once or twice during some of the wordier monologues, and the film, while often thrilling, never makes it all the way to scary.
But these are minor quibbles in what is an often excellent little movie. And, if there is any justice in the world, “The Vast of Night” (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) will do for Patterson what “Jaws” did for Spielberg- serve as a dazzling calling card and an entry into bigger and better projects.
The future for everybody involved in this project- cast, crew, writers and director- is quite vast indeed. And I personally can’t wait to see what they do next.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.