​By Matt Neufeld
The Washington Film Institute
May 29, 2020

Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz
Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger
Directed by Andrew Patterson
Produced by Adam Dietrick, Melissa Kirkendall, Marcus Ross, Caleb Henry and James Montague
Cinematography by M. I. Littin-Menz

“The Vast of Night,” a new science-fiction film about aliens visiting Earth that premieres on Amazon’s streaming service on Friday, May 29, 2020, is a huge disappointment and, overall, simply an average, nearly-forgettable rainy Saturday afternoon B-movie diversion, saved from being completely below-average wholly by its period details, a good-hearted attempt at telling a good old-fashioned alien invasion campfire story, a few random inventive camera shots, and an attempted, but ultimately unsuccessful, new take on telling an alien visitation story in a new way.

“Night” is also one of those odd movies in which a basic, tired and cliched framing device completely destroys the overall mood, atmosphere and fantasy and sci-fi aspects of the entire production. This is weird, yes, but this is what happens–and the framing device is completely unnecessary. It’s a mystery why it’s even there. And, again, it nearly completely sinks the project. The writers, for that unexplained, unclear mysterious reason, set the entire story as an episode of a television show similar to “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” or “The X-Files.” So the viewer can’t even enjoy the overall story as a fantasy story–you’re sitting there watching the story play out not as an imaginative actual sci-fi story, but, well, as a made-up television episode. Why on Earth, pun intended? Why do we care if we’re watching a movie that’s presented as an episode of a television series? Unfortunately, this huge misstep by the filmmaking team hovers over the entire movie, like the alien ships that hover over Earth throughout the story.

One has to wonder: Didn’t these filmmakers realize that if they left out the television show angle–which, again, adds absolutely nothing to the movie–and presented the story as a stand-alone sci-fi story, the viewer would be better able to enjoy the movie as an enjoyable sci-fi fantasy film–albeit, an average one at that. But if you’re simply watching a recreation of a television show in the overall context, the viewer almost doesn’t even care. If we want to watch television sci-fi or fantasy, well, we’d turn on “The Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” or “The X-Files.”

But even if “Night” was presented as a sci-fi fantasy movie without the annoying, odd television episode gimmick, the film would still be simply average. There are just too many problems with this movie, and they occur at all filmmaking levels–production, direction, writing and acting.

The writing problems occur with the overly-simplistic story, script, plot and subplot–there’s just not much there. The story, and the movie, can be summarized as basically a night in a small rural town in the 1950s in which two irritating, annoying teenagers hear a strange sound on the telephone and on radio waves, then they hear from two people, via phone calls, who have ideas about the origins of the sounds, then they talk to the two people, then they figure out quite easily that the sounds are from alien ships, and then, well, uh, er, that’s it. Really–that’s it. Teens, sounds, phone calls, interviews, aliens. Not only can any viewer who’s 7 years old and older figure out that the sounds are aliens even before the two witnesses call in, but the story is so simple, so unoriginal, so straightforward, and so completely lacking in anything new, original, inventive, clever, perspective or insightful, it’s all just tiresome and cliched in the end. The story is one-note, bland, simplistic and unsatisfactory. It’s just what it presents itself to be–two teenagers hear sounds, check them out, find out they’re aliens–and that’s just not enough. There’s no depth, no real subplots, no story or character or plot development on a deeper level, and not enough story and plot to sustain a feature film.

The viewer’s left to wonder, like viewers wonder with so many feature films these days, just why this even got made. It’s just another alien-invasion story, and, really, by about 1975, we already had an overload of alien invasion movies! Sure, there’s always good sci-fi alien invasion films, and that’s always welcome of course, but there’s also just too many bad ones–at all levels of production. To pick just one example out of hundreds, perhaps thousands, one of the biggest-grossing alien-invasion movies of the last twenty-five years, 1996’s “Independence Day,” was, let’s face it, one big dumb insipid ridiculous big-budget piece of embarrassing filmmaking that was as laughable as it was just plain bad. And, as noted, there’s many more where that came from.

So why make a small-budget alien-invasion movie that’s set as a television show with a very simple plot that doesn’t advance the genre, add to the genre, or improve on the genre? That remains a mystery.

The acting is average here, too, but that’s not quite a slight on the actors and their work in the film. It seems that the many producers–why this small film had to have five producers is yet another mystery–and the director and the writers wrote every character as somewhat annoying and irritating–really. The two leads, the two teenagers played by Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, as written and portrayed are simply so annoying, irritating, cringy and uncomfortable to watch, their performances take the viewer straight out of the movie, or television show, or television show as a movie, or whatever, and straight out into space, or spacing out. The characters screech, talk over each other, talk so fast their cliched dialogue sometimes can’t be understood or conveyed realistically or clearly, argue with each other with no charm, talk at each other with no charm, run around like crazed maniacs when calm and steady would have been far more interesting, attractive and dramatic, and smoke cigarettes one after the other as if the world’s precious supply of cigarettes was about to run out. And the characters as portrayed have just about zero chemistry between each other–at times, they seem like they can’t stand each other. To have to follow such unpleasant, irritating people doesn’t improve the moviegoing experience.

The director also insisted on covering up the two leads’ faces with outrageously distracting, ridiculous and unattractive black glasses that are almost clownish in their appearance. And they’re dressed in some of the most unattractive, also-distracting 1950s-style costumes the wardrobe department could have dug up in their apparently also distracted research.

And, oddly, other characters are also decked out in unattractive, distracting glasses, and they’re also smoking.

When you don’t have a story that’s insightful, interesting, new or attractive, the least you can do is make your characters likeable and relatable and attractive and charming. None of the characters in “Night” are likeable, relatable, attractive or charming. And those cigarettes–there’s no reason to have the lead smoke so many cigarettes. And that’s not some politically-correct anti-smoking statement–yes, everyone smoked in the 1950s (as everyone smoked throughout the 1980s and even into the 1990s)–but in the context of this movie and story, the cigarettes mean absolutely nothing. They mean nothing, they add nothing, and it’s just irritating in the overall context of the movie. And it’s the same with the glasses–the glasses mean nothing, and there’s no reason to cover up the faces and eyes of your lead actors. It just doesn’t make any sense on a filmic level.

The direction suggests glimpses of some talent in working with the cinematography in storyboarding and planning some interesting camera shots, but, again, some cool, nifty, technologically-efficient camera shots don’t make an entire movie. There are some interesting tracking shots–which means, scenes in which the camera tracks, or seems to track (via camera and editing trickery), the action in long, fluid shots that appear to ramble, float, drift, fly and zoom from one location to another apparently without obvious editing of angles or camera placement. But, again, why insert these occasional tracking shots if it doesn’t really mean something deeper? Talented directors and directors of photography know when and how to insert inventive camera shots, angles, movements, edits and approaches in ways that fit in with the overall story, action, scenes, locations, plot and characters. Good camera shots have to mean something, they have to connect directly to the rest of the film, the camera angles and shots and movements have to mean something in regards to the overall context of the film. In “Night,” the talented and impressive camera shots appear out of nowhere, out of context, and don’t generally have a deeper meaning in relation to the overall context and story.

The production succeeds with period detail in terms of costumes, buildings, settings, locations, buildings, cars and period-indicative props and settings such as old-fashioned telephone boards, old-fashioned radio station studios, and even an old-fashioned high school gym, but, again, the period details have to connect well to the overall story, and in “Night,” they don’t. The only real connection to the 1950s is the feeling that this is occurring in a smaller, less-populated, less-technology-oriented small town from that era, but that’s about it. The story and its basic elements could have occurred in any decade–there’s nothing deeper in the film that suggests that setting this in the 1950s means anything. Suspicions about aliens and government cover-ups may have reached some weird fever-pitch in certain paranoid and space-crazed segments of society in the post-war, Cold War, space age period of the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, but, again, much of that overriding milieu is only touched on, but not touched on deeply or intelligently enough.

Yes, yes, the story’s basic plot movement–what ends up as essentially and, again, too simply, two overly-long monologues of people who worked for the military and were suspicious about military and government cover-ups of alien invasions and communications–refers to some of this milieu in the film. But, again, those two monologues–from the witnesses who contact the teenagers to tell their own stories about the alien sounds–are just too compact, too pat, too simplistic. Filmmakers cannot just base their entire movie, story and plot on two explanatory monologues. And, to make things even more irritating and annoying, one of those monologues–in a huge filmic mistake–is delivered entirely over the phone. So to have a long, winding, not especially inventive and overly-long monologue delivered over the phone is just poor writing and direction. It’s slow, sluggish and almost boring.

“Night” plays like one of those movies that likely started as some type of good one-line, elevator-pitch idea from the writers–teens in a rural ’50s town hear strange sounds over the airwaves that could be aliens and they try to investigate the sounds!–but, somehow, oddly, mysteriously, that idea got diluted, diverted and distracted along the way from meddlesome producers, directors and other writers.

In the end, “The Vast of Night” ends up being swallowed up by vast problems that more experienced writers, directors and producers could have handled and improved upon before the cameras rolled. After years of generally the same-old, same-old in science fiction, fantasy and alien invasion movies, this old Earth is due for an inventive, interesting and intelligent alien invasion movie. Alas, we’ll just have to wait a little bit longer.

John Hanshaw

John Hanshaw

founded WFI in the Fall of 2007. He has worked in film and television for over ten years at such institutions as NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), PBS and most recently National Geographic. He has degrees from Amherst College, Cambridge University, and GW Law.