In The Vast of Night, 16-year old evening telephone operator Fay Crocker and radio DJ Everett Sloan stumble across a strange sound in the telephone lines and radio airways. What is this whirring sound, almost like a windmill, but less natural, with a distinct atonal voice coming through.
There’s a featurette showing an impressive long tracking shot that last about 4 minutes in The Vast of Night. It is impressive and well-conceived. But the best trick in The Vast of Night comes in the scene directly following this shot. Everett patches the sound Fay heard through to the radio and asks, “Has anyone ever heard such a thing?“ That’s when caller Billy is introduced. As Billy tells his story of strange events during his service in the air force, the screen goes black for long stretches of time. Billy is a voice on the radio, and we get to experience him entirely as a voice on the radio. There’s no cut to Billy. Nothing visual establishes him. His story is told to us as the characters in the film experiences it, with an occasional flash of our protagonists reacting in to something important that he says. We listen, and the movie deftly gives us cues on how to react by showing us Everett and Fay just every so often.
From there, the chase is on, first to another town denizen with stories of people in the sky and finally to look at what it is that’s in the sky, as reported by those few people who are not at the high school basketball game.
At times, The Vast of Night is a bit too cute. We open to a Twilight Zone-like TV show on an old tube set that’s meant to tell us we are watching a similar television program. There are several shots throughout that swap the dark, grainy almost Instagram-like tones of the majority of the movie to a faded, cyan-heavy, tube-TV look to remind us, “This is all a show.” It’s not just visually unappealing, but it served to take me out of the film and lower the stakes. We’re in early 50s, small town rural America at night where the streets are dark with a masterful soundtrack and rich diegetic sound that raise the stakes and intensity. It’s dark, there’s naturalistic dialog with mumbling and extreme crosstalk. And then we’re forced to become all too aware of the hand of the director, ripping us to a television screen, as if to say, “Don’t be scared. Don’t feel anxious. This is just a story.”
The Vast of Night joins a rich tradition of smaller, less expensive films that uses its budget well to tell a science fiction story that feels real and personal. But the filmmakers need to communicate that this modern film was just a piece of 50s pulp television ultimately undermines its successful world building instead of enhancing it. If they only had the conviction to let the audience live in Cayuga, New Mexico…