The impact of the film industry on the coronavirus pandemic has been depressingly documented, from the indefinite postponement of movie shoots to the delayed release of studio pictures to the continued closures — some will be permanent — of cinemas. Audio-based art forms, on the other hand, are thriving. Offering the illusion of intimacy but the safety of distance, radio and podcasts are now more relevant than they were three months ago.
It’s a moment suited for The Vast of Night, opening today on Amazon Prime. The unconventional alien-invasion feature from director Andrew Patterson is fundamentally a throwback to pre-cinematic, and perhaps a foreshadow of post-cinematic, forms of entertainment. Its antecedents are not canonical science-fiction films so much as gobsmacking radio plays, paranoid call-in shows and eerie podcasts. Think Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, the freewheeling Art Bell years of Coast to Coast AM and the gather-around-the-speaker campfires of contemporary podcasts such as “Welcome to Night Vale.”
So many movies tell us what to look at and how we’re supposed to feel about it; this one paints its most vivid pictures with sounds, and lets us stumble through its auditory fugues along with the characters. It’s so much a product of the theater of the mind that Patterson, in one crucial scene, fades to black for what feels like minutes, letting the staticky voice of an anonymous whistleblower, calling into a tiny New Mexico radio station in the late 1950s, blanket us with his gripping tale of a crashed UFO, underground military bases and radiation poisoning. I hasten to say that a blind person could get as much, if not more, out of a viewing of The Vast of Night than the sighted majority.
The movie’s visual sense, while secondary to its soundscape, harkens, a bit too self-consciously, to Spielberg’s pubescent awe — the inevitable dolly shots into characters staring into the sky in wide-eyed wonder — and Altman’s widescreen tapestries. It’s game night in a gymnasium in the fictional town of Cayuga, N.M. Voices overlap and pretzel around the sounds of dribbling basketballs and fans trickling into bleachers, a bustling vista in which loquacious radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) comfortably strides, cigarette a-dangle.
Everett is soon to begin his shift spinning 45s on local station WOTW — not coincidentally the acronym for “War of the Worlds” — when he meets up with an eager tagalong, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a 16-year-old switchboard operator excited about the purchase of her first tape recorder, a briefcase-bulky reel-to-reel. She seeks his advice on how to operate it, and he dutifully obliges, both unaware that this device will steer them down a paranormal goose chase that unspools in more-or-less real time.
The movie’s color palette is deliberately muted, with cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz favoring a nostalgic palette of 50 shades of brown, from the primitive audio equipment of the radio station and switchboard to the basketball arena and the characters’ costumes. This speaks, again, to an audio-first agenda; the viewer, imbibing the picture with eyes closed, may in fact imagine a more vibrant canvas than the one we’re actually given.
The same goes for lengthy, single-take dialogues between the two protagonists, with Littin-Menz’s camera following dozens of feet behind them in the vacant street of their provincial town, their figures occluded by mist and light pollution, removing visual distractions and allowing us to zero in on their conversation.
By the time the screenplay evolves into intimate scenes of characters listening to strangers talk about supernatural happenings for sprawling amounts of time, we don’t miss the action: We’ve been primed to absorb the tales one word at a time, to process the claims without the crutch of visual verification.
The Vast of Night is set to open at drive-in theaters across the nation concurrently with its Amazon Prime release. Sadly, none of South Florida’s three operating drive-ins have shown enough adventurous spirit to screen them, preferring to fall back on household-name 1990s blockbusters and theatrical retreads from February and March. This is too bad — if ever there were a movie meant to be heard through the analog magic of a local radio station, it’s this one.
THE VAST OF NIGHT. Director: Andrew Patterson; Cast: Jake Horowitz, Sierra McCormick; Distributor: Amazon; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Today on Amazon Prime