Well, the world’s in pretty terrible shape, isn’t it? As if living through a generation-defining pandemic wasn’t enough we’ve also gotten the joy of watching America become more open about it becoming a fascist police state as protests around the country are turned into nightmares. And, it’s really hard to figure out what you can even do in a time like this, and after donating time and money you may end up like myself, just kind of paralyzed with self-doubt and frustration. And, if you’re also like me, you may be attempting to sublimate that frustration with some media. Which, is of course a potentially frustrating approach, since we really aren’t getting that much new media, especially new movies. So, in my eternal search to find something new to watch for a little self-care, I’m always going to jump at the chance to check out something that’s getting positive buzz. Which is how I came across a new Amazon Prime original film, The Vast of Night. I didn’t really know anything about it, other than seeing people give it very positive reviews while saying that it felt reminiscent of a 1950’s sci-fi flick. Which, is certainly a genre that I find a little comforting, primarily due to my obsession with Mystery Science Theater 3000, even though those films don’t often portray the best aspects of 1950’s sci-fi. So, while being a little concerned that I was about to watch a movie about a bunch of greasy guys hanging out in laboratories talking about an alien that they didn’t have the budget to show for more than ten seconds, I checked the movie out, and was really pleasantly surprised by a movie that manages to throw back to a style of sci-fi film-making that doesn’t really exist anymore, while showing that it’s just as powerful today as it was back then.
The film, which is structured like an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque show called Paradox Theatre, takes place in a small town in New Mexico called Cayuga in the 1950’s. We follow a young man named Everett who appears to be working at a local radio station in the night while still attending high school as he responds to a request for help with the school’s electrical system. And, along the way he runs into Fay Crocker, another student who is clearly enamored with Everett and who has dreams of becoming a scientist, leading America into a technologically advanced future while working as a switchboard operator in the small town. The two chat for a bit, before Everett heads off to record his show while Fay works at the small switchboard. But, while listening to Everett’s show Fay starts to overhear a strange signal broadcasting through Everett’s show. And, what’s more confusing, she starts to get calls to the switchboard that alternate between people outside of town calling in horrified confusion, and the signal itself. Fay manages to get a hold of Everett, and have him listen to the signal, and they confirm that it’s been playing throughout his show. They aren’t quite sure what to make of the signal, and end up playing it out over the air, asking people to call in with ideas of what it might be.
And, shortly after, Everett gets a call from a man claiming to have been a former soldier in the military with a story to share with them. He tells them about a series of clandestine missions that he and other soldiers have been sent on in the last few decades, which make him convinced that the sounds are signals between alien spacecraft. He gives some evidence to the listeners that aliens have been watching humanity for a while now, and ends up leading Everett and Fay on a hunt around town for more proof. The meet up and begin travelling around their small town, talking with people who are hearing the strange sound, and some who are seeing strange phenomena in the sky. And all of this eventually leads the pair to meet an older woman living in town, who tells them a story about how her son was kidnapped by aliens, who she believes are secretly dominating the human race. They’re rather put off by the woman, especially her insistence that she comes with them to find the aliens so she too can be abducted and reunited with her son, and end up fleeing. But, that sends them down a path that leads out of town, where they indeed come across some sort of alien craft hovering over their town, listening to them, and studying them.
I enjoyed myself with the Vast of Night. It’s included with Amazon Prime, so if you have the ability to check it out I recommend giving it a shot, especially if you’re into sci-fi. But, it’s not going to be for everyone. It’s a pretty slow movie, and I’ve seen some people have somewhat negative reactions to it for that reason, arguing that it feels like something that could have simply been a radio drama. But, I kind of enjoyed that about it. It’s obviously leaning into something of a Twilight Zone aesthetic, and I think it accomplishes that nicely. It’s a tight little sci-fi flick full of actors who I’m not at all familiar with, telling a stripped down story that manages to pack in some good moment and cool ideas. It’s not going to set anyone’s world on fire, but I thought it was a fun little movie. It’s certainly unlike most things we get these days, throwing back to an older style of sci-fi filmmaking, while managing to be a best case example of it.
Like I said earlier, when I heard people saying that this was a bit of an homage to 1950’s sci-fi flicks my initial assumption was that it was going to ape the B-Movie trappings. It would be about aliens, but primarily be about people sitting around in laboratories talking about aliens rather than showing anything. And, while it still does end up being a movie that’s mostly about people talking about a mystery, it manages to get higher marks by also homaging one of the central themes of 1950’s sci-fi cinema, at least the most successful entries. It’s a movie about paranoia. The 1950’s were a strange time for America, and science-fiction managed to capture that feeling by telling stories of people constantly stressed out about everything around them. The Cold War was breathing down their necks, the space race was beginning, and science was pushing Americans further into the future than a lot of them wanted to be taken. So, the came up with stories about aliens hunting them, and forces out of their control listening and studying them. And, this film manages to get across that paranoia and horror in a way that shows you that things haven’t really changed all that much. The world is still a nightmare, and we literally have things listening to us all the time. The paranoia of the 1950’s is alive and well, and I’m kind of hoping we get a resurgence of low-budget movies like this that take advantage of that.
The Vast of Night was written by James Montague and Craig W Sanger, directed by Andrew Patterson, and released by Amazon Studios, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk