Review by C.J. Bunce
So often big budget dramas dressed in sci-fi dress rise up the box office rankings, you might miss the best films, the ones that don’t need the big budgets or major stars, the refreshing sleepers that surprise you. One of those great surprises was Midnight Special, which I reviewed here at borg back in 2016. The next spectacular science fiction work is even better–The Vast of Night–the brainchild of writer-director-producer-editor Andrew Patterson (who is billed under multiple names), now streaming on Amazon Prime. Could this freshman filmmaker be the next J.J. Abrams, John Carpenter, or Steven Spielberg? Think Super 8, The Fog, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in a setting like American Graffiti and The Outsiders, with stunning cinematography, superb dialogue in a tightly written script, and a fresh and eerie use of sound. If you missed this Amazon Studios arrival earlier this summer, you’re in for a treat of 1950s teenage sleuths, a radio station, and strange goings about town: An ambitious film that comes pretty close to perfect science fiction in the classic tradition of The Twilight Zone, The War of the Worlds, and the short stories of Philip K. Dick.
As with Midnight Special, this masterwork of science fiction drifts in and out of multiple genres: thriller, horror, nail-biting suspense, a nostalgic coming of age picture. At one point it’s as dark as sci-fi thrillers get, while along the way it’s a sweet look at two kids getting to know each other. Viewers are pulled into a 1950s television anthology series where we meet two teenagers played by perfectly cast young actors, Sierra McCormick (Supernatural, Monk, Medium) as a Velma Dinkley-inspired Fay Crocker, a 16-year-old switchboard operator, whose callers start experiencing X-Files-type phenomena during the town’s Friday night basketball game. She has purchased a new-fangled gadget called a tape recorder and seeks help using it from fellow classmate Everett Sloan, a 1950s Matt Dillon who oozes his era’s slang, knows how to play all the angles, and has his own radio show with the latest tunes, played by a Buddy Holly-inspired Jake Horowitz (Agnes, Castle Freak). They aren’t boyfriend-girlfriend, but you get the feeling they have potential. Their subtle but telling reactions to all they hear are mesmerizing.
In fact the duo’s reaction to townspeople responding to sounds and sights in their Cayuga, New Mexico backwater town is pretty much the entirety of the film, dotted by a town full of locals with 1950s innocence and only two others who may hold clues to the mystery: Bruce Davis (Painted Woman, Great Plains) as a radio caller and Gail Cronauer (JFK, Infamous) as a lonely woman who will take viewers back to a scene of a kid and a room full of toys running amok.
Fast-talking banter meets long (but never too long) unbroken camera shots and the slowly building tension begins with an introduction where viewers become fully immersed in every action, rumor, and historic tale of the town, all building to a Roswell mystique and a sort of retelling of Orson Welles’ alien invasion radio play of 1950s paranoia, his retelling of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This is how to use historical technology to reach modern audiences. It’s a simple town straight out of an S.E. Hinton novel where Patterson reveals his mystery like a ghost story and never misses a beat. And the ending has an unexpected twist that would have Mulder and Scully on the case the next day if set 40 years later.
Easter eggs abound, including the acronym of the the radio station where Everett works also tied to Patterson’s choice of the character’s name. It doesn’t have the layers, but it may be as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Andrew Patterson is the next filmmaker to keep an eye out for, and The Vast of Night is the latest, truly great science fiction gem.
Watch The Vast of Night, streaming now on Amazon Prime.