As far as Movies go, This is Good Radio.
DIRECTED BY ANDREW PATTERSON/2020 (U.S. release date)
Vetting new release films in the era of COVID-19 is a tricky thing, as any distraction from current events can feel like a refreshing dispatch from on high. With no legitimate theatrical releases available in their native environment, nor even solidly on the docket for the near future, anything with the veneer of the “cinematic” is a candidate for waved-in greatness. Case in point: Amazon Studios’ original mystery/sci-fi/gabfest, The Vast of Night. Lots of people are finding a lot to love about it. This, though, is not one of those reviews.
Ostensibly an episode of a faux-Twilight Zone series called Paradox Theater, The Vast of the Night takes place in a 1950s small town in New Mexico as a paranormal phenomenon takes to the skies, unseen. Unseen, but not unheard, as our two main characters played by Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, work as a telephone operator and a radio DJ, respectively. They are each in the perfect ground zero for all the strange audio transmissions generated by what is determined to be an unidentified flying object.
First-time director Patterson makes a very clear point of attempting to cop David Fincher in terms of visuals and Aaron Sorkin in terms of dialogue and the fine art of the walk & talk. With an obviously skilled technical crew behind him, Patterson does a respectable job of emulating both, though the chips in the facade are apparent right away, to the point of distraction. The vibe, with its pools of yellow light amid inky stretches of mundane dimness ala The Social Network or Zodiac, take on an overwhelming degree of wannabe syndrome. The character chatter is incessant, even annoying, with certain points repeated multiple times, lest our attention wander. They jabber, they jabber. They jabber jabber jabber. Then… they don’t. (Orchestrated silence).
Patterson seems to revel in technique. A minutes-long impossible tracking shot through the entire town is finally broken up by a frantic cut-cut-cut-cut machine gun-like flurry of close-up activity. None of this is exactly motivated, but gosh isn’t it swell to be making a movie? Some are applauding the go-for-broke filmmaking flourishes that make up The Vast of Night, but as a viewer, it all amounts to flagged artifice.
For example, when a vital bit of information must be communicated to the characters and the audience, it arrives as a long-winded phone call to the radio DJ. The caller is never shown, leaving Patterson with few visual options as a guy in booth listens. So, the bold choice to completely go to black is made. (What does a filmmaker show when there’s nothing to see? Nothing!). But then, as though someone from Amazon Studios stepped in concerned about viewers thinking their TVs have lost picture, it proceeds to fade back into the DJ… then back again to black for a few moments… then back to the DJ… It’s both an ill-advised directorial high-wire stunt and a non-committal bore.
Even the framing device of Paradox Theater arrives via a production design cliche as the non-existent episode runs on a Philco Predicta television monitor. This copper retro-futuristic television set was only manufactured between 1958 and 1960 and are quite rare. Thanks to their unique aesthetic, they’ve become something of a visual shorthand in communicating a mid-century modernist, slightly “other” vibe… despite the fact that most average households wouldn’t have had one. As close to the line of David Fincher as Patterson is dancing, this prominent bit of set decoration alone reveals how off he can be. The Philco monitor is an immediate red flag. Fincher would’ve went for a more typically cumbersome model of TV, something that’s floorspace and bulk barely justifies its small screen size. Something that the everyday people of this story would’ve had.
As enamored as The Vast of Night is with forms of communication, itself resides in the wrong medium. To quote Letterboxd patron Ella Kemp, “this really should have just been a podcast”. Too true… Ten-minute monologues in dark rooms captured via locked-down, unmoving camera is the forte of cinema geniuses like Bela Tarr. All others should tread extremely carefully. In this movie, multiple such moments just drone pretentiously toward the closing credits. Mercifully only eighty-nine minutes, The Vast of Night still feels wantingly decompressed, being that no Twilight Zone episode ever ran that long, nor did they stay stuck in Act One for ninety percent of their own running time, as this does before plowing straight into a quick Act Three and then The End. Interested in getting to know the characters? Best to let that go.
With an abundance of moxie, it’s clear that Andrew Patterson is someone to keep an eye on as he matures into the field. For the dull show that is The Vast of Night however, it can only be signed off on as good radio.