Putting a debut together is no easy feat. Though, doing so completely independently and without any financial backing or a grant is a whole new kind of challenge. However, most often the resulting films will require a massive adjustment of expectations on behalf of the viewer in order to be enjoyed, appreciated or admired. One has to look past the cheap aesthetic, amateurish performances or any other kinds of shortcomings stemming from the veritable lack of experience behind the camera or money to sass up the production value.
Naturally, a keen and honest viewer should be able to adjust and appraise the film on its artistic merit, but it doesn’t change the fact even the most widely acclaimed microbudget masterpieces like Clerks or Primer have qualities that should find themselves in the viewer’s blind spot – like Brian O’Halloran’s acting in Clerks, for example – to facilitate an all-around satisfying viewing experience. Alternatively, and this is the case for many genre movies, the filmmakers may choose to wear these shortcomings (budgetary, technical, or what-have-you) on their sleeves because the fan base they are thus pandering to enjoys this kind of aesthetic or even actively expects a certain level of homemade quality.
On the other hand, The Vast of Night is one of those unique debuts that doesn’t require the viewer to adjust too much, explain away any shortcomings, or engage in any form of mental gymnastics to overcome that small budget hurdle. In fact, if it hadn’t been for a few little giveaways here and there, I’d be able to convince myself (and others, for that matter) that Andrew Patterson was working with a studio backing and a budget of a good few million dollars when putting this film together. But he did not. He was using his own savings to put together a science-fiction mystery and a period piece at that! If that’s not an achievement, then I don’t know what is!
In any case, I am happy to report that I was compelled by this simple story about a couple of young people – a radio DJ and a switchboard operator – living in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico in the 1950s who come across a mysterious signal and a potential conspiracy involving extra-terrestrial visitors descending upon their sleepy home town. It just goes to show that with the right attitude and a good helping of ingenuity, it is possible to cobble together a genre movie which would likely necessitate millions of dollars in CGI special effects if it was made in Hollywood.
Andrew Patterson who wrote and directed the film was clearly aware of where he would have to ‘hide the seams’ or innovate in order to retain an illusion of high production value and an overall polished aesthetic. The entirety of the film takes place over the course of one night, which conveniently allows the filmmaker to obscure any and all special effects under the cover of darkness. Most importantly however, he relies on the viewer’s imagination –arguably the most powerful generator of special effects – to fill in the blanks when needed. But even with this in mind, the film only resorts to relying on these innovative tricks towards the end and throughout most of its duration places the burden of responsibility for the film’s success on the shoulders of his characters, who happen to be written extremely well and inhabited with confidence by Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz.
Thus, the film gleefully hijacked my imagination and dragged me along this journey to get to the bottom of what’s going on, who’s in on what, where this strange signal comes from, who’s lying and who is not and if there is any deeper meaning to this narrative anyway. Although I don’t think I can at this moment testify to the latter, I don’t think it is should be required for this film to leave me stirring for days on end. In fact, I am not so sure the filmmakers cared either and they simply decided to create a compelling piece of escapism – with a bit of a twist – that successfully leverages its genre inspirations and provides rock-solid entertainment.
Without a shadow of a doubt, The Vast of Night was a pleasant surprise that tickled my interests in just the right ways. Witty, charming and kinetic, it is a great piece of cinematic nostalgia that could easily serve as an informative companion piece to J.J. Abrams-directed Super 8. It is a great illustration to a claim that a solid science-fiction film might not necessarily require flashy special effects or the coveted ‘Amblin feel’ to function as an indie descendant of Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Fire in the Sky and The Twilight Zone. It is first and foremost a solid piece of smart and atmospheric entertainment that should convince everyone to look forward to what Andrew Patterson does next, presumably when someone gives him a budget to work with. Because from what I hear, he might have spent all of his savings in bringing to life this thrilling adventure and might be a bit skint.