Voices in the Dark
You have to try and find a way to stay hopeful about the future, even now, even ridiculous as the notion feels. So – let's look at a new movie, even though this basically means a streamer. Or perhaps not so much a stream as a Big River, if you know what I mean – this company's production arm recently enjoyed the world's global #1 movie, in the form of Woody Allen's latest offering (and if you weren't sure of just how much things were still in upheaval, this sentence should make it entirely clear to you), but let's consider something with slightly better prospects of actually being any good.
Of course, the brand new movie I have chosen as a change from all the archive material opens as a finely-observed pastiche of TV show from sixty or so years ago: Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night opens with a set of credits and a terse voice-over which position it as an episode of a fictitious anthology SF series like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits or Dusky Realm. This initially seems like a rather odd choice, as we proceed directly into a lengthy sequence entirely unlike anything Fifties TV would ever have produced: long, long takes and rattling dialogue, the viewer left to try and get some sense of what is going on.
We are in New Mexico, at some point at the back end of the Fifties, and it's the night of the first basketball game of the season. Pretty much everyone in the small town of Cayuga is at the school to watch the match, and the sense of a community is well evoked: everyone seems to know everyone else, the same old tall tales passing from person to person almost as a ritual of belonging. Not planning on watching the game are local DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), whose friendship has an easy closeness that suggests the possibility of something more, somewhere down the line. The opening has a gentle sense of nostalgia which makes it endearing, and there's a nice moment where Fay discusses various predictions about the future that she's heard – cars with electronic drivers and transport by vacuum-tube railway Everett can believe in, but the idea of a phone in your pocket you can use to take photos with? Come off it.
Before the movie gets too cute, the two part company and another bravura sequence ensues, with Fay manning the town switchboard and beginning to get odd calls from some of her fellow citizens: suddenly you can imagine perfectly how a scenario like this might have worked as a Twilight Zone episode, making a virtue of the restricted setting and cast. The camera stays fixed on Fay in a single, very long take as she hears about strange noises showing up on phone lines and panicked suggestions that not all is as it should be in Cayuga's airspace. Everett agrees to broadcast the strange sounds and makes an appeal for help from anyone who can identify it – and someone duly calls in, claiming he was part of a top-secret US military project concerned with strange metal objects and the same peculiar transmissions. Gradually the situation becomes a little clearer, with the same message coming from everyone Fay and Everett talk to: there's something in the sky…
So, yes, this is essentially a UFO movie, a subgenre which invariably gets lumped in with actual SF, simply because adherents of the extraterrestrial hypothesis will have you believe that UFOs are spacecraft. (Personally I think that if UFOs are indeed the stuff of science fiction, then the science in question has a good chance of turning out to be either anthropology or psychology.) But this kind of elision has been going on for decades and is largely immaterial to whether or not The Vast of Night is actually any good. Well, I think it is.
This is, fairly obviously, quite a low budget movie (though the film industry being as it is, the 'low budget' is a sum of money I could probably live on quite happily for the rest of my life), but this kind of film is where an up-and-coming writer-director gets to do his stuff. Patterson proceeds to demonstrate his ablity with great assurance. Possibly the film is a little mannered – there are a lot of long takes of different kinds, including one in which the camera zooms around town, into and around a building, up a flight of stairs and then out through a window, while the TV show gimmick is briefly alluded and he's also fond of actors soliloquising over a black screen – but the overall effect is still more than enough to be impressive. As a calling card, this should do the trick; it may also help the careers of McCormick and Horowitz (who carry the movie quite adeptly), too.
Whether the film actually needed the Twilight Zone framing gimmick is another question; I can imagine it working just as well without it, and it's not as if it actually resembles the show that closely. Some bits do; others clearly don't. In the end I suppose it is justified, because The Vast of Night isn't just an act of pastiche with some virtuoso direction incorporated into it. My integrity as a critic (shut up at the back) prevents me from going into too much detail as to how the story pans out, but it did seem to me there is a thought-through metaphor in this film. The protagonists may be WASP-y teenagers, but the characters who have encountered the aliens and the government before and share their stories are not: one is a black man, apparently chosen for dangerous duty because he was considered expendable; another is a woman who was a single mother at the time. The voices in the movie speaking of ominous, little-understood, largely invisible forces are those of the dispossessed and disregarded, the underclass of a supposedly classless nation.
Anyone watching The Vast of Night expecting the usual action-adventure sci-fi triviality is likely to be disappointed, but this is an impressive movie, thought-through, well-made, and likely to provoke conversations amongst those who have seen it. I can't imagine Rod Serling ever writing anything quite like it, but I think he would have been proud to put it alongside the better episodes of his show. Well worth watching.