A really big and really important way that movies deemed to be science fiction almost always fail as science fiction is that they are hardly ever about ideas. About speculation and extrapolation and examining what it means to be human as seen in opposition to other possible ways of being and living from the ones we have now. (Which doesn’t mean they aren’t often absolutely terrific movies, and hugely enjoyable!) The cinematic genre gets so caught up in the trappings — spaceships and laser guns and aliens that are “alien” only because they look weird, not because they have wildly different biologies and cultures — that it forgets everything else. And most audiences are okay with this, because they’re not actually interested in ideas anyway. (There are exceptions, of course, among movies and among fans. Don’t #NotAllGeeks me.)
I’ve talked about this before. And yet it never occurred to me until I started pondering The Vast of Night, and trying to figure out why it struck a chord with me, that one of those SF ideas, in the meta, that SF movies utterly fail to capture is how SF makes us feel, and how it makes us think, those of us who enjoy it at its purest. That’s when I hit on why Vast works even though its plot, were I to go into extensive detail about it, would sound banal, like something we’ve seen plenty often before. Because it’s not about what happens. It’s about how what happens hits our two geeky protagonists, how it rocks their paradigm. How it makes them — and us — be the fish who suddenly sees the water.
Winner of the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at last year’s Slamdance Film Festival, The Vast of Night is, primarily, a mood piece. And a character sketch. It is all eeriness and ookiness and existential wonder and existential dread. It is that chill up the back of your spine in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep — that chill that is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying — when you’re thinking about how what if we aren’t alone in the universe, and would that even be a good thing to know for sure. And how we can find new universes in which we’re not alone merely by expanding how we see humanity.
Here we meet Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick: Ramona and Beezus, Land of the Lost), a 16-year-old high-school student who moonlights as a telephone switchboard operator — this is set in the late 1950s — and her platonic pal Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), slightly older and a deejay at the local radio station. They have bonded, we learn through their rapid-fire conversations — the performances by McCormick and Horowitz are a snappy delight — over the height of geek stuff in their small New Mexico town in their day. (The re-creation of the place and time is remarkable, and something that at first seems like an error — the call letters of Everett’s radio station begin with W, when everyone knows that west of the Mississippi, they always begin with K — is merely part of the plan.) They play with radio and tape recorders. And they daydream about what the future may bring, as when Fay excitedly relates what she’s read recently in science magazines, about self-driving cars and phones with little TV screens that are so small you can carry one in your pocket.
The slim story unfolds over a couple of hours one evening when Fay hears a strange electronic sound over her switchboard and enlists the help of Everett, currently on air, to figure out what it is. Callers into the station, after he plays the mysterious noise over the radio, share odd stories about their own encounters with the sound, offering hints of something bizarre, perhaps even sinister, at work.
Vast is explicitly Twilight Zone–esque, to the point of being structured as an episode of the invented Paradox Theatre, an anthology sci-fi TV show with its own Rod Serling–style opening monologue. It is deliberately summoning a midcentury-America innocence, a time when the present looked pretty chipper and The Future looked so bright… at least from the narrow perspective the likes of Everett and Fay would have had. The menace that grows as the two friends run around town hunting down more clues to What’s Going On comes from a secret that is overtly fantastical, of course. But it’s also about them encountering the realities of people not like them right there, right then: a black soldier (Bruce Davis) and a single mother (Gail Cronauer: Boys Don’t Cry), both of whose stories about the noise are connected to the ill treatment they receive in a racist, sexist culture.
This is a strikingly impressive debut for screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, and for director Andrew Patterson, who transform a straightforward bit of retro sci-fi suspense into something bigger than the sum of its parts. As always, this example of science fiction is as much about our own world in this moment as it is about the imaginary make-believe it spins. Often that is accidental for the genre. It seems very much the point here, and very much part of evoking that meta thrill of SF, that it not only sends one’s mind on flights of fancy but opens one’s mind to perceiving what has been right in front of you, unseen, all the time.