There is something perpetually entrancing about the well-crafted low budget sci-fi thriller. There is a long and excellent tradition of such movies, with entries such as “Alien” and “Europa Report” being remarkably effective at telling an engrossing story with a very limited toolkit. “The Vast of Night” can also be added to this intriguing subset of cinematic experiences. It is a movie in which, on the surface, little happens. It is, in fact, so driven by dialogue rather than spectacle that it could easily be reproduced as a radio drama. As a film which focuses on that which is insignificant and overlooked, however, it is a perfect example of just how impactful those small things can be.
The film follows two central characters: a quippy and charismatic radio personality named Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), and a switchboard operator named Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick). The main events of the story unfold as the two track down an unidentified audio frequency back and forth across the empty streets of a small New Mexico town at nightfall. A movie clearly inspired by the style of “The Twilight Zone” and framed as an episode of “Paradox Theater,” it nonetheless takes the typical 1950s Sci-Fi UFO story and recasts it in a surprisingly grounded way.
The set-up and events of the story are simple and straightforward, but the details are what make the progression of the movie so enthralling. Fay is a small town girl with family responsibilities and a down to earth attitude on values and expectations for her life; but clearly she dreams of bigger things and is fascinated by the scientific wave which seems certain to dominate the future. Everett is confident and dynamic, also with his eyes on the future, but on a future which he seems very close to achieving. The dynamic between the two of them drives most of the drama and intrigue of the plot, combined with an excellent slow drip of information which feeds the audience’s imagination and desire to unravel the next strand of the mystery.
Perhaps what works most effectively here is precisely the same thing which worked so well in “Alien” and “Europa Report.” The tension in none of these films relies on spectacle. Occasionally there is a glimpse of something to feed the imagination, but the interest and tension is achieved in the minds of the audience, rather than on the screen. It is accomplished far more by what isn’t said, shown, or explained, rather than by what is. It works by hints and indications that something is going on. It is yet another example that, in storytelling, the mystery is generally more interesting than the answer ever is.
One delicate touch which makes this particular film memorable, however, is the way in which it balances its themes and meditates upon their significance. There is a great subtextual battle going on beneath the surface of the story, as each new scene helps to build up intensity in the ongoing intersection of human nature and the Machine. Sometimes it is beneficial to both; often it is not. The great Unknown seen in the Machine and the Future is counterbalanced by the setting of the hometown and constant return to tradition and old stories. Two young protagonists looking at the future in different ways and for different reasons ultimately find themselves face to face with the future, and it is one seemingly beyond comprehension. The last shot of the film is one to ponder over for multiple rewatches, as what moves on and what is left behind in this expedition to the future are not accidental choices. It is not a “feel-good” movie, and is perhaps over-reliant on the technique of having various characters retell old stories to drive the plot along. Despite its reliance on a few simple techniques, however, it produces a story both curiously moving and subtly terrifying. Best served with fine wine and good conversation.
I debated whether to give this two or three stars for some time. On the one hand, it has a few noticeable missteps along the way, but ultimately it does achieve an effective conclusion which inspires a good deal of reflection and thought after the fact. Any movie which is thoughtful enough to do so deserves recognition as such.
I write these reviews because I love film, storytelling, and cinema as an art in pursuit of truth and beauty. On a more personal level, I simply like writing and thinking about the themes and ideas of movies. However, if you would like to support me in this endeavor, I do greatly appreciate your support!