Following the annual film festival gauntlet through Telluride, Venice, and Toronto, awards season is already in full bloom. But this year has a different feel: streaming platforms are ascendant. The success of Roma at the 2019 Academy Awards has become a feature, not a bug for the film industry; Netflix has a host of major contenders rolling out over the remainder of the year. Amazon, too, will release a handful of titles to its platform, hoping to capitalize on its past success with films like Manchester by the Sea and The Big Sick. Will we look back on 2019 as the year awards season officially embraced the theatrical disrupters? That’s the guess here at TV Guide, which is why we’ll be providing reviews for the year’s biggest streaming movies throughout awards season.
Somewhere in America in the 1950s, the blueish grey of a television screen flickers across a vacant living room. A Rod Serling-esque voice is heard reciting a familiar-but-different narration about the mysteries of space and time as the camera pushes in toward the small TV, the rounded screen filling up our own. Welcome to an episode of The Paradox Theater, a Twilight Zone-type show that serves as the framing device for Andrew Patterson’s feature debut. “Tonight’s episode,” the voice booms, “The Vast of Night.” A throwback sci-fi thriller, The Vast of Night is like an old school radio play that fuses the slow-building paranoia of The Twilight Zone and the chilling awe and extraterrestrial sightings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The fuzzy black-and-white of the TV screen melts away as we enter the fictional world-within-a-world, shot in grainy, dimmed color by M.I. Littin-Menz. The locals of a quaint New Mexico town cheerily greet one another as they file into the high school gym for the night’s basketball game. Everett (Jake Horowitz), the beloved host of the town’s local radio station — the call sign, WOTW, an unmistakable nod at Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast — is setting up recording equipment and chatting with Faye (Sierra McCormick), a brainy teen who works as the town’s switchboard operator. This breezy evening feels like any other in a small 1950s town as families sit in cars nibbling on cheeseburgers, but this is no ordinary night; something is up with the power at the gym, a strange sound is later heard over Everett’s nightly news broadcast, and Faye receives an alarming call from a panicked woman claiming she saw something in the sky.
The Vast of Night, set to be released by Amazon, is a slow build that cherishes atmosphere and dialogue over action and showy visual effects — though there is one breathtaking tracking shot set to a dazzling piece of music from composers Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s score. Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, the film is full of lengthy conversations between characters — a fascinated Faye tells Everett about articles predicting technologies of the future during a stroll across town; an old woman frozen in the past recounts the last time she saw her son — that Patterson captures in long, fluid takes.
In the film’s most ambitious sequence an anonymous man calls into WOTW after Everett broadcasts the bizarre frequency live on the air. The director repeatedly cuts to an almost-black screen as the caller, gripped by a mix of fear and wonder, shares his story of the first time he heard that same spine-tingling sound while working on a top-secret military mission years ago. It’s a daring choice, forcing the audience to sit and listen, and one that evokes the thrill and suspense of old-time radio dramas. Though it may test some audiences’ patience — there were a few walkouts during my TIFF press screening — it will be richly rewarding for fans of storytelling podcasts.
While something as nostalgia-heavy as The Vast of Night could have easily come off as a cheap rip-off off its influences, Patterson has instead created something remarkably transfixing on its own. It’s an impressive first film that suggests Patterson’s a filmmaker to keep tabs on going forward into the night.