The Vast of Night amazon prime video

The Vast of Night is a 1950s sci-fi throwback worth the hype

This low-key thriller is more than just retro set dressing and jump scares — it’s one of the best movies of the year.

What is, concretely, the point of making a film set in the past? It might seem like a loaded or unnecessarily vague question, like I’m trying to gussy up my introductory CEGEP English class essay by starting so far from the actual point that working my way towards it might comprise the entire essay. But it’s really what I was thinking about watching Andrew Patterson’s excellent new sci-fi film The Vast of Night: Why is Stranger Things set in the ’80s, except perhaps for the fact that the ’80s has lots of cool design and visual elements? Why are period films so in vogue right now — and within said period film, what justifies one period over another? I understand that cellphones have made a wide swath of familiar narratives more or less unusable, but there should be a legitimate reason for a movie to be set in, say, 1957 rather than 1942 besides the cool cars and jackets that you can use in either.

It’s one of the many great decisions made by The Vast of Night to be set very specifically in the 1950s, not just for the sock hops and pep rallies and good-timey rock-and-roll it contains, but because it is absolutely vital to the story the film is telling. The Vast of Night, amongst other things, is a film about people grappling with a technology that seems archaic to us now but seemed rife with possibilities — a reimagining of technological scaremongering with a “if I knew then what I knew now” angle that shifts a familiar narrative into new territories. It’s true that the space race, the Cold War and the presence of extraterrestrial life are all inextricably linked to the visual language of the 1950s, but The Vast of Night isn’t a nostalgic film about the 1950s. It’s just a movie set in the 1950s — and I can’t begin to explain how refreshing that feels, somehow.

It’s game night in the idyllic rural town of Cayuga, but not everyone can attend to cheer the boys on. Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) has a switchboard to run, and her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz) has a radio show to do. (One of the canniest jokes in the film is that Everett is introduced speaking extremely dated ratatat daddy-o roller-rink patois that immediately suggests the film is a Grease-level boomer fantasy — but, of course, radio DJs are pretty much the people who popularized that kind of slang.) The two meet before their respective shifts so Everett can help Fay figure out how to use a tape recorder she’s just bought. It’s a brand-new consumer technology that proves to be finicky as the two of them attempt to interview other townspeople for shits and giggles. As Fay settles in behind her switchboard for the evening and Everett begins his show, she starts to notice increasingly bizarre sounds on the line — not simply interference, but more elaborate and bizarre phenomenon that she quickly makes Everett privy to.

By hinging the story on technologies that are much more common (if not downright antiquated) to modern audiences than they are to the tech-obsessed leads of the film (Fay rhapsodizes about an article she read that predicts the existence of cell phones — devices so advanced that experts surmise people will know if the person they’re calling has died simply if they pick up the phone or not), Patterson avoids the pitfalls of your traditional techno-thriller. It’s a supernatural, sci-fi thriller in which almost everything supernatural that happens also just feels like technology going on the fritz. In fact, what’s admirable about The Vast of Night is how incrementally it increases the stakes — a mystery where we’re fairly sure what the mystery is actually going to be, but that takes so much time getting there, it still feels supremely satisfying when you arrive.

If there’s one caveat to Patterson’s sure hand and even-keeled direction, it’s possibly the somewhat superfluous framing device that posits the film as an episode of an old-timey, Twilight Zone-ish show. The device (which sometimes translates into a chintzy green filter over the image to suggest it being broadcast on a old television) adds a splash of distancing gloss to the film that it certainly doesn’t need. But so much of The Vast of Night exists in subtle zones — in conversation, in silence, in cramped spaces, in the eerie light of the country — that something like the framing device barely registers in the end.

I’ll be perfectly honest: there are two things that I find off-putting (on paper, at least) about The Vast of Night. The first is the very premise of supernatural sci-fi, a genre that has more often than not produced films that I find emotionally cold and overly concerned with logic and interconnectedness than anything even remotely resembling human emotion. The second, which is even more of a ridiculous bias on my end, is that the film was extremely hyped up in its genre festival run. While I love genre festivals (and festivals in general and leaving the house, once upon a time), they tend to get caught up in hype rather easily. But the hype here is absolutely real. The Vast of Night is a debut like few I’ve seen recently, a film with an assured hand that mixes and matches technique without every feeling showy — a miracle in itself. ■

The Vast of Night is on Amazon Prime Video now

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