Amazon original THE VAST OF NIGHT (2019, streaming on Prime) is a fun and intelligent low-budget sci-fi story that is strong on storytelling, but its strength is weakened by way too heavy direction.
It’s the 1950s, we see a small town in New Mexico, and a big basketball game is about to start in the school gym. Everett, a fast-talking, confident college kid who works the local radio station, bumps into Fay, a high schooler who works nights at the town’s phone switchboard. They accidentally discover a strange sound frequency in the air, which leads them to unlock an old town mystery.
The trailer is fantastic, though the movie doesn’t quite deliver what’s promised, which is a fun, STRANGER THINGS-type story about plucky kids in over their heads but fighting through it. It’s close, though, and I liked the script, which is heavy on dialogue but goes to great lengths to produce a sense of realism and deep storytelling that provokes the imagination. Unfortunately, Everett and Fay aren’t as likeable as the trailer suggests–Fay is erratic and a nag, while Everett is cold and a jerk–which is fine, but their characterizations aren’t put to effective work. But I didn’t mind. While I wasn’t emotionally invested enough to root for them, they’re likeable enough, and the story works.
Where VAST OF NIGHT failed for me was in the heavyhanded direction. The creators should have trusted the script to produce immersion, but instead they set up a frame–this is all a 1950s PARADOX THEATER episode–that frequently intrudes along with the screen cutting to black, impressive but unnecessary long tracking shots, and sudden, rapid cuts when somebody is doing something. The film constantly calls attention to itself, taking me out of the story to a level where when some chilling revelation comes, I simply didn’t care, since I’d been reminded so many times it’s just a movie. VAST OF NIGHT has gotten a fair reaction from viewers but a very strong reaction from critics, with many of the reviews citing its technical prowess; that’s a problem.
So overall, I found VAST OF NIGHT an enjoyable, interesting watch with some strong storytelling, though I was more impressed with its possibilities than what it achieved.
(On a final note, if you have a character who’s a chain smoker, get an actor who smokes and let them smoke, or cut the smoking altogether. It’s weird seeing people take two mouth puffs and then put the cigarette out only to light another.)