Amazon Prime gives us a powerful character-driven 1950s sci-fi tale.
You are watching an episode of Paradox Theatre, a Twilight Zone– or The Outer Limits-style show which is apparently airing in the 1950s or 1960s. This episode is called “The Vast of Night.” In the 1950s in a small town in New Mexico, Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a local radio DJ who has just invested in a new tape recording device. He shows it off to his friend and fellow teenager Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), who works as a local switchboard operator. That evening, while the town is attending the local high school basketball game, Fay hears a strange noise during Everett’s broadcast. She and Everett set out to investigate the sound and end up finding out that there are more things in heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in their philosophy.
This movie took what should have been an astoundingly boring series of events and somehow made it extremely compelling. This is honestly a testament to how things can be but through a masterful combination of cinematography, sound editing, great scripting, and excellent performances. Most of this movie is the leads conducting interviews or talking over phones or radio, things that are much better done over a podcast or radio drama than a film, but this film manages to make all of those conversations intense and, somehow, fresh. This, despite the fact that the movie follows the same steps that dozens, if not hundreds, of films from the 1950s and 60s through today have already taken. Normally, to move a genre like “something mysterious in a small town” forward, you have to use the same cliches, then build upon them. This movie tends to just eschew the cliches in favor of having sincere character conversations. I once said that the reason that my favorite episode of Gravity Falls is “Not What He Seems” is that the show focused on how the characters felt about what was happening, rather than just focusing on what happens. This film does the same thing, and I applaud it.
I think the framing device of being an episode of an old sci-fi show might be one of the most brilliant things about the film. Because it’s an episode of Paradox Theatre, we are cued in that everything is going to look like a stereotypical 1950s small town, the way that shows from that time would convey them. It means that we’re going to address some themes, like government secrecy or racism, but that the focus is still going to be on a compelling narrative. It just tells us what kind of story we’re going to get, something involving science fiction, and it makes it easier to accept the long gap between the movie starting and the plot really gaining steam, because we’re not waiting for a reveal.
I think one of the best things about this movie is how well it uses the medium of film and radio. There are scenes that are completely dark in this film which give us the same feelings that we would get if the information were coming in over the phone or the radio, the way that the characters are experiencing them. Then there are other, long, sweeping shots in a single take that basically covers the entire town. We get single take shots of Fay monitoring the switchboard as calls come in that start to tell her that there is something happening on the outskirts of town, which makes all of the building concern much more impactful.
Overall, just a great movie. I really recommend it. This is the director’s only credit on IMDB, but I would like to see what Andrew Patterson does when he has more than a shoestring budget.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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