Less is more in Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut, an intimate yet ingenious sci-fi feature titled The Vast of Night. Written by himself under the pseudonym of James Montague with co-writer, Craig W. Sanger, the story immensely takes place over a fateful night in a sleepy New Mexico town where strange sounds interrupted phone lines and radio broadcast. The conflicts, unraveled through a series of dialogues and grounded investigation carried by two teenagers, might be vast but never spectacular; however, it guarantees one of the most suspenseful sci-fi mysteries in recent years.
The night is the basketball night where almost everyone in town attending the high school game. Everett (Jake Horowitz), a local radio DJ, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, are among those who do not attend the game. During work, Fay hears the strange sound and reaches out to Everett who then broadcasts it to the radio. It sparks reactions from other citizens who claim to have witnessed extraordinary events that occurred in that very dead of night and from others who admit to having heard the same noise. Unbeknownst to the teenagers, what they thought of as a mere conspiracy theory may have had a real root and, furthermore, they might be at the center of this all.
Embracing the story’s 1950s set, The Vast of Night is staged as if it’s an episode of an over-the-top sci-fi show that was popular during the decade. In fact, this movie indeed feels like a Twilight Zone episode complete with the voiceover, the then lo-fi quality, and, most importantly, its spooky atmosphere. Patterson compensates for the movie’s micro-budget with a somber style that perfectly resembles the era’s zeitgeist. The movie’s minimalist set gives advantages for the filmmaker to focus on creating more believable suspense that fits the era. Telephone lines are still very limited; the same goes for recording devices. The investigation feels a little simpler in looks, but also more complicated in the process. There’s no instant procedure for Everett and Fay to verify any information they received but to check on site. It gives the story its grip on the time constraint; therefore, the overnight duration feels honest and real-time.
RDespite the alleged extraterrestrial mystery, the movie never actually showcase any overly explicit intergalactic spectacles. There’s barely a CGI fest to depicts the movie’s central attraction like any recent sci-fi movie would be. This treatment immediately reminds me of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs—a heist movie without any actual heist taking place on-screen. In the same department, Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly’s Safety Not Guaranteed also comes in mind on its attempt to convince audiences of the unconventional event only through dialogues and arguments. Nevertheless, the movie is not without technical virtue. In fact, Patterson pushes all boundaries to create constant suspense and elusive atmosphere with exquisite filmmaking techniques, including the 9-minute (almost) static shot of Fay working religiously at the switchboard office. The scene looks pretty simple, except for the fact that it carries the burden to become the very first hint of the mystery. What follows is another technical prowess with another minute of a continuous tracking shot roaming around the empty town before cutting through the basketball game (in which the filmmaker shows another attention to details—the absence of three-point lines).
The Vast of Night relies on the illusion of urgency to make its seemingly simple set an engaging battling-the-clock drama. Horowitz and McCormick’s performances serve as the metronome with their rapid dialogue-bursts and body movements (oftentimes, Fay will opt to run by feet to beat the clock while Everett drives a car). Their dynamics fuel the character-driven story to venture beyond the small, sleepy town where it takes place. ‘Less is more’ possibly fits the whole story well.