No film better demonstrates both the promise and the limitations of pandemic cinema than The Vast of Night. Without big screens or big releases, cinema has come to seem smaller in almost every way, shrinking both the format and our expectations. Few if any new releases have risen to the occasion.
But director Andrew Patterson's microbudget sci-fi drama, now available on Amazon Prime Video, seems tailored to the moment. It's an intimate and meticulously crafted directorial debut, the first must-watch movie of our new all-streaming era.
Set in a small, fictitious town in New Mexico in the 1950s, the story follows Fay, a telephone switchboard operator, and Everett, a local radio host, who jointly encounter a mysterious sound moving through the airwaves. What could it be? If you notice that the setting is near Roswell, and that the radio station's initials, WOTW, could stand for War of the Worlds, you probably have a pretty good idea. The movie's delights are not so much in what they find as in how, in the way Patterson manages their investigation and their relationship, forcing us to look and listen closely to small details and consider what they mean.
In interviews, Patterson has cited David Fincher and Stanley Kubrick as influences, describing how he obsessively studied their techniques, particularly in terms of lighting and camera movement. The Vast of Night doesn't quite live up to its inspirations, but it is nonetheless a remarkable technical achievement. The film is a feature-length announcement of Patterson's talent: Here is a director, it seems to say, who can really, really direct.
Even more impressive: Patterson manages to show off without making it seem like he's just showing off. He stages a number of impressive long takes, including one jaw-dropper in which the camera glides across the entire town, from the switchboard through the middle of a high-school basketball game and eventually into the radio station control room. This gives viewers a sense of town's scale and layout, the ways in which its residents' lives are linked by geography, time, circumstance, and fate. Such shots are designed first and foremost to tell the story; it's a movie, not a demo reel.
Indeed, the showiest directorial moment is the decision, mid-film, to show nothing at all. The movie's centerpiece is a call-in to the radio station in which an older man describes a secretive military project that may provide a clue to what's happening. As the caller speaks, Patterson repeatedly fades to black for long stretches, letting the audio carry the film for extended moments. In those moments, it's as if you become the radio host yourself, closing your eyes to more intently focus on what's being said.
Throughout the movie, Patterson emphasizes the rhythm of the dialogue, the almost musical feel of it. His protagonists speak in a rapid-fire chatter, punctuated by mostly innocent period patois. At times Night seems almost as indebted to Aaron Sorkin's walking-and-talking sequences as to the elegant brooding of Fincher or Kubrick. There's a radio-play sensibility to the production, one that seems designed to demand that viewers listen closely, remaining alive to the mysteries and possibilities of strange sounds in darkened skies.
That mystery, however, is where the movie falls short. Although it doesn't play out quite like any film you've seen before, where it's going is never really in doubt. When the final payoff arrives, it feels more like checking a box than a climactic reveal. Patterson has figured out how to hold the attention of his viewers; it's not quite clear he knows what he wants them to pay attention to.
In some ways, then, the movie offers a surprising parallel for the moment. What the pandemic has done for movie watching is to make us pay attention. Without the usual pipeline of studio releases to guide us through the summer, those of us who care about movies have instead been tasked with sorting through the slushpile of straight-to-streaming releases, some of which have been reasonably tolerable but few of which have stood out. Like The Vast of Night, most new releases of the pandemic era have been relatively small productions. But unlike Night, they have tended to be small in ambition as well.
A well-made, well-reviewed debut like The Vast of Night might normally have been a buzzy curiosity for see-everything cinephiles. But without the crush of blockbusters that usually land this time of year, a film like this arrives with great expectations, for it has to substitute for all the movies we're not seeing. In the end, it cannot quite shoulder that burden. But as a smartly made film from a young director with a huge amount of promise, it comes tantalizingly close. And in doing so, it performs a different sort of service, one film fans desperately need: It gives us reason to hope for all the great movies to come.