It’s hard to overestimate the influence of “The Twilight Zone” on contemporary science fiction. One could easily point to its spiritual successors in series such as “Black Mirror” and its 2019 reboot headed by modern horror heavyweight Jordan Peele. But the original show’s key elements — its anthology structure, atmospheric pacing and “moral of the story” final act — have made emulating “The Twilight Zone” a bona fide subgenre of its own.
Enter “The Vast of Night.” Despite the film’s decorated run on the 2019 indie festival circuit — winning the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at Slamdance among several other nominations — cynical viewers could foreseeably brush this indie film off as just another in the crowded “Twilight Zone Lite” field. But even if it never quite escapes the trappings of its genre, “The Vast of Night” is still in many regards a respectable triumph of microbudget filmmaking and an impressive debut for director Andrew Patterson.
“The Vast of Night” follows high school senior and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and local celebrity radio host Everett (Jake Horowitz) as they intercept and investigate a strange radio frequency, seemingly tied to a recent wave of localized power outages. Throughout its entire runtime, “The Vast of Night” uses this search not only as a narrative device, but also as a way to explore its Cold War era, small town setting. Much of the plot develops as its pair of leads drives across town in its borrowed Hudson Hornet, interviewing suburban locals and digging up clues in the local library.
The meticulous energy that goes into crafting this setting is put front and center by the film’s ambitious cinematography, easily its greatest accomplishment. “The Vast of Night” is packed to the brim with incredible long tracking shots. Its camera glides uninterrupted down cul-de-sacs, between houses and through windows, weaving between characters as they make their ways around empty streets and crowded high school gymnasiums. The cinematography is even more breathtaking taking the film’s small budget into account: These sequences still impress, even when pitted against films with exponentially greater funding.
Also worth praising is the film’s screenplay, which feels punchy, fast-paced and incredibly modern. Fay and Everett effortlessly bounce quips and witty dialogue off of each other in even the most mundane of interactions. Their chemistry is simply infectious; there is also a degree of subtlety to McCormick and Horowitz’s deliveries that characterizes the two leads as individuals. A desperate need for recognition undercuts Everett’s snide wit; a fear of personal obsolescence motivates Fay’s unabashed curiosity. The film’s other principal characters, all residents of the same suburb, also feel charming and organic, spreading gossip and forming petty grudges.
With the film’s strengths accounted for, however, its shortcomings become clear: For all of its excellently crafted pieces, “The Vast of Night” seems to struggle to find something greater to do with them. The film frames itself as an episode of a “Twilight Zone” surrogate, which is brought somewhat distractingly into focus several times throughout its runtime. But it ironically falls short in its delivery on what made “The Twilight Zone” so memorable and celebrated — that is, the “moral” at the end of each episode.
There is certainly a place for less narrative-driven and more character-driven science fiction — which “The Vast of Night” ultimately seems to aim for — but by sticking so adamantly to this framing device, the film creates a sense of anticipation of a typical “Twilight Zone” conclusion, one that the film grows less and less interested in as the ending draws nearer. This dissonance, in addition to the disappointingly thin intrigue behind its central investigation, makes the film’s ending feel somewhat unearned, as if “The Vast of Night” ends without ever reaching an actual conclusion.
All things considered, the sheer technical talent on display throughout “The Vast of Night” marks it as an impressive piece of filmmaking, even if there is room for improvement in its narrative execution. Indeed, its successes are made all the more breathtaking considering its tiny budget and status as a directorial debut. With charismatic leads, an organic period setting and simply incredible cinematography, “The Vast of Night” is still a wondrous achievement in independent filmmaking, well-deserving of the praise it has earned.