My hopes were really high for The Vast of Night. Tired of overly frenetic fare like Star Trek Beyond, the thought of a slower, more old-fashioned science fiction film really caught my eye. After glimpsing the very positive buzz it received not long after being dropped on Amazon Prime, I was absolutely hooked, and convinced that my dad (a very big fan of The Twilight Zone, older Star Trek episodes, and just sci-fi in general) would love it just as much as I would. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t meant to be—not just for me, but also him as well.
Admittedly, the film is very impressively crafted for just $700K. The “1950s small-town” setting could have looked really cheesy or fake in other hands, but debuting director Andrew Patterson reproduces it with a surprising amount of charm and authenticity. With the night’s blackness (at no point does The Vast of Night take place during the day) masking any noticeable budgetary restrictions, the detail that goes into every single setting and location—most notably, an old-fashioned radio switchboard—is quite arresting.
Even when some of Night’s stylistic choices (for instance, pointlessly putting a blue “retro TV” filter over some scenes) get a bit gimmicky, they’re made up for by just how well-made the film is overall. Patterson certainly has some great potential as a director, and if he works with some good writers in the future, he could really make something incredible.
And that brings me to my biggest issue with The Vast of Night: its writing. Despite clearly being a tribute to shows like The Twilight Zone, it forgets what made it so intriguing, so haunting, and so vastly influential. Instead of a fresh story with some biting moral lessons or social commentary, we get a pretty generic tale of a young switchboard operator who notices something weird coming over the radio, then finds out that it’s… well, I can’t reveal that here, but suffice it to say that it’s really, really underwhelming.
I’m not saying this because the low budget prevented the film from showcasing it better. I’m saying this because the script just didn’t come up with anything that imaginative, or find a way to communicate it that felt anything other than clichéd and derivative. When the climax finally arrives, all it does is show us something we already knew was coming right from the very beginning, yet had to suffer through 90 extremely slow minutes in order to get to. And believe me when I say the film is that. Painfully. Slow.
The thing is, a slow-burner like Roma or There Will Be Blood still manages to be engaging throughout because of how compelling the characters are, or how immersive the story and/or general location is. This film, on the other hand, takes scenes that should get to the point pretty quickly, and needlessly stretches them out so much that they’re nearly sleep-inducing.
Easily the most excruciating case of this is towards the beginning, when our main characters—one the aforementioned switch operator, another a radio DJ who’s obviously friends with her—are casually chatting together, and the camera lingers on them walking down the dimly lit street towards their respective destinations. A moment like this should really suck me into the film’s world, or get me invested in these characters’ personalities and/or interests. Instead, I was just bored out of my mind, mainly because all of the dialogue here is repetitive, uninteresting, and holds zero significance for anything later.
So really, as with another sci-fi film I saw not long ago (District 9), I just don’t get why everybody is going as crazy for The Vast of Night as they are. Yes, it’s trying to be unique and different, and yes, I do have endless amounts of respect for that. But strip all the film’s boldly offbeat qualities away, and you just have a fairly mediocre 20-minute Twilight Zone homage—only it’s an hour and a half long. And a very long hour and a half at that.