Fantastic Fest: THE VAST OF NIGHT is Spellbinding Sound-Driven Sci-Fi

Director Andrew Patterson forgoes sci-fi spectacle for captivating communal campfire stories in a remarkable debut

To me, one of the most magical hours in Pop Culture history is Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. For a brief moment, radio audiences across the country were plunged into a world where science fiction crossed into reality, a world of terrifying and wondrous possibilities. It’s been decades since that broadcast, and radio’s given way to film and TV. Both media have the power to depict what radio could only describe — and modern sci-fi spectacles have also attempted an occasional sense of gritty realism. But one can’t help but think something was lost in the transition from radio to film: a sense of imagination that creators entrusted their audiences to have, one that allowed their stories to take deeper emotional root. Director Andrew Patterson’s debut feature, The Vast of Night, attempts to bridge that divide, creating a realistic sci-fi film rooted in the past that places as much (if not more) of an emphasis on its soundscape than its visuals. It’s a Sorkin walk-and-talk through a Bogdanovich-ian small town on game night as much as it is a Close Encounters gaze into the unknown. The result is one of the most immersive moviegoing experiences I’ve had this year, let alone at Fantastic Fest, and it’s one I eagerly await sharing with friends and family.

Pitched as a TV episode of Twilight Zone knockoff Paradox Theater, The Vast of Night follows radio host Everett and switchboard operator Fay as they investigate the source of a mysterious signal across the local airwaves while the rest of their small town congregates for the night’s big high school basketball game. Their investigation doesn’t go the expected Stranger Things route of exposing local conspiracies or comically conspicuous infiltrations of military bases. Rather, much of Fay and Everett’s work is spent listening: to the faint flickers of electronic signals, to phone calls of something in the sky heading for town, to the stories of those who have witnessed their potentially extraterrestrial visitors firsthand. Each story, though, brings Fay and Everett that much closer to the prospect of seeing something out of this world, infusing the grounded, ordinary world of The Vast of Night with a remarkable sense of excitement and immediacy.

The film rarely leaves the side of Fay and Everett, played by Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz as small town high school versions of His Girl Friday’s Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Everett’s the local newbie DJ working the graveyard shift at radio station WOTW (I see what you did there, Patterson). Fay works the night shift at the town switchboard, and has a burgeoning interest in radio reporting that leads her to turn to Everett as a mentor. Most of The Vast of Night’s endearing moments are spent away from the plot to look at the bubbling chemistry between the two; Fay’s admiration of Everett’s radio-gab prowess fueling his own slick confidence, and both see careers in radio as their ticket out of their stuck-in-time small town. Much like the fast-talking adolescent sleuths in fellow Fantastic Fest attendee Rian Johnson’s debut film Brick, Fay and Everett are kids eager to prove their mettle by taking on the impossible, solving larger-than-life mysteries out of the watchful eye of adults. The two are immediately captivating on screen, especially thanks to screenwriting duo James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s whip-crack hard-boiled dialogue. Between Fay’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and Everett’s effortless coolness, The Vast of Night’s script infuses the repetitive, detailed tics of small-town gossip with the overlapping verbal chaos of Aaron Sorkin or Howard Hawks.

At the same time, though, Montague and Sanger’s script knows precisely when its characters need to shut up and listen, plunging themselves and their unseen audience into a silence that’s mined by sound designer David Rosenblad for aural gold. The Vast of Night frequently invites us to lean in and listen, to heighten our listening senses and experience the real-time immediacy of the characters. We search the vacant airwaves, searching for a sign, any sign, of something lurking out there in the dark — a patience that is frequently rewarded in interesting ways.

The best moments of The Vast of Night unite its love of dialogue and storytelling with its sound design ambitions, creating moments that harken back to the rapt attention given to Orson Welles’ chaos-inducing broadcast. Great writing allows imaginary characters to convince you of impossible things; in its most audacious moments, The Vast of Night uses either long, static takes or even removing visuals entirely so that the audience has no choice but to listen to the characters tell their stories. The dialogue completely draws you into a world of shadowy government intrigue, class and racial tension, and how these otherworldly visitors’ visits work — all without leaving the room the characters are in. Plunged in the darkness of the theater, we’re swallowed up by the surrounding voices in the dark, our imaginations painting a far more detailed picture than the biggest CGI wonder could ever depict. It’s a communal ghost story expertly told.

But don’t worry — The Vast of Night contains its own visual flairs, too. There’s moments where, propelled by the immediacy of the dialogue, the camera takes off like a rocket through this small town. M.I. Litten-Menz’s camera explores the nooks and crannies left abandoned as everyone gathers for the big game, savoring each of the period details constructed by Production Designer Adam Dietrich and Art Director Jonathan Rudak. Frantic, fast-paced editing by Junius Tully has a knack for maintaining the film’s exciting tone as well as an unexpected comedic timing.

While the Fantastic Fest entries by established auteurs like Bong Joon-Ho and Robert Eggers may top the final lists of those who attend (as they did mine), films like The Vast of Night are the ones I end up remembering and revisiting most. It’s a sci-fi story electrifyingly told, one that seeks unexpected and innovative ways of sparking a wonder in its audience that may have grown dormant after exposure to endless big-budget franchises.

The Vast of Night had its Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2019. Amazon Studios will release the film theatrically in 2020.

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