A look at the film ‘The Vast of Night’ directed by Andrew Patterson
Imagination may be one of the greatest gifts of being a sentient, living human-being. Not as good as chocolate or setting fire to copies of ‘Swiss Army Man’, but it’s still an amazing thing to have.
It’s a gift that takes us on adventures; centuries through time, light-years across space, deep into the lives of others, skirting around conflicts or daring to delve into places less well known. The beauty of imagination is that there are no limits. There are no boundaries to reign it in. No shackles to hold it back.
It’s an entire multiverse of infinite possibility. Which is both a blessing and a curse; it gives us the whimsy of ‘Star Wars’, the awe of ‘Jurassic Park’ and the intrigue of ‘The Sixth Sense’. On the flip-side, it gives us utter bollocks like ‘Swiss Army Man’.
Yup, three paragraphs in and I’ve already taken two digs at it. Trust me, it deserves every inch of spanking it gets.
Imagination works both ways. We need writers and film-makers to have the sight to create pieces of work for us, and we – the audience – need to have the sight to accept their vision. While imagination itself has no boundaries, us as individuals do.
This is why a chap I used to work with refused to watch any science-fiction. “Space ships, ray guns… It’s all nonsense,” he’d say. To him, his imagination stopped at the launching of the International Space Station. Yet he was quite happy watching any other fiction on the grounds that happened in the here and now or was visibly relatable to an era that had existed.
Others, like me, have a broader scope where a universe containing billions, maybe trillions (or more) galaxies are spawning endless possibilities all the time. But, I too have limits to my imagination; mine simply can’t accept that a flatulent corpse in the likeness of Daniel Radcliffe can ever help to produce an acceptable film.
It’s called ‘suspension of disbelief’. And sadly, I can’t hear those words without thinking of Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone and George Dzundza driving around being snarky with each other. Damn you, ‘Basic Instinct’.
One of the times when we can appeal to both the broad and the narrow imaginations is with real-world settings but with the prospect of being visited by something unknown. Arguably, the greatest example of this is ‘Close Encounters of Third Kind’, a Steven Spielberg epic that has endured since it was released well over forty years ago.
While now a historical piece, at the time of being filmed, it was contemporary. It beautifully detailed the lives of people who thought aliens were visiting and the profound manner in which their lives, and the lives of those around them, were affected.
There have been many other alien visitation films over the years and they cover a broad spectrum of success. A slightly more recent attempt came to my attention very just the other day during a film-night with a friend. I didn’t know going in that it was an alien visitation story. All I knew was that it was about a couple of people who discover a mysterious radio signal.
The film puts us into a time and place incredibly quickly with an old 1950’s style television that we kind of push into and then end up in the movie-world with the characters. It’s a nice technical gimmick that quickly does away with the need for exposition or for blunt-force plot setup.
We then have lots of very technically clever scenes; structured, staged, performed and filmed in a bold, observational style that makes us feel like we’re always chasing and trying to keep up with the players. The camera swooshes and glides seamlessly around as it follows the actors and only hard cuts to a new angle when absolutely necessary.
These long, unbroken scenes give a sense of fluidity and dynamic-energy. The conversation is natural and believable, the sets all look authentic 50’s USA and that’s about as far as I’m going to go with the positives for ‘Vast of Fright’… I mean ‘night’… ‘Vast of Night.
Yes, it’s technically very clever. But that’s as far as it goes. Those long unbroken scenes drag on for eternities. The conversation may feel authentic and realistic, but it’s drab, uninteresting and irrelevant. All that fluidity washes away into boredom and the dynamic energy dissipates like a fart at the seaside.
If you like films that are quotable, this is certainly not the film for you. I think it had one line that was even halfway good and it was so close to the start that the brain cell that took it in has died by ritual-suicide by the time you’re an hour into the film.
A saving grace is that the film is that, by todays standards, it is not long. At a modest ninety-mins, it’s actually what one used to consider to be normal-length. But they achieve the modern standard of nearly three-hours by making it so arduously dull and drawn out, that time actually slows down around you.
I was stunned, when I checked IMDB and found reams and reams of reviews heaping praise on this title. In fact, some of the reviews have been quite eloquently written, better so than the film itself. But then, there is something they all have in common; they all praise how technically adept it is.
And this is why I have an issue with it. Anything can be “technically excellent”, but if it has no heart, no soul, no pace, no drive, no development, no reason to care… Then what’s the sodding point?
It’s as if a writer sat up and said, “I want to make a real-time film that showcases fifties-style phone switchboards, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and have really long scenes with no obvious cuts in them,” and then he set about doing so, shoe-horning any idea he possibly can into an awkward and stunted script just so he could create something he can beat his chest about later on.
It’s another example of a really good, short, fifteen-minute film, being bloated out and padded with sparkles in the hopes that we’ll be too mesmerised to notice it is drivel. Even the soundtrack is a distraction. And when the soundtrack gets in the way, it means the music is either way better than the content of the film, or so poor as to draw your attention needlessly. Alas, it is the latter in this instance. A couple of later cues are more acceptable, but for the first eight days of the viewing experience, there is a ridiculous, distracting, clapping sound that makes it painfully hard to listen to the inane chatter between the characters.
The two lead actors, Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick, do a fine job for the most part. Though it has to be said that the scene where Horowitz takes a phone call while doing the radio-broadcast, he is a little underwhelming.
That whole scene is underwhelming. It’s so static. No camera movement, no actor movement, the voices are flat and tedious, the dialogue rambling, occasionally incoherent and hard to focus on. And if that isn’t bad enough, it’s been edited in such a way that it occasionally goes black and white and flickery like a fifties television, and then sometimes it fades to black completely for a couple of minutes while the audio carries on.
It’s beyond absurd. It makes an already hard to watch scene even more excruciating. I lost most of the actual dialogue because my brain needed something to concentrate on and so I found myself putting together a mental shopping list for later in the week.
I spent the first forty five minutes of the film laughing nervously because I just had no idea what was happening or why I was watching it. And it wasn’t because I had missed anything, the film just hadn’t got around to doing any plot stuff yet.
And nor would it. As alluded to a little earlier, this is a real-time film. So, an hour and a half of their time is also an hour and a half of our time. Films have been made like this before; ‘Nick of Time’ is an interesting example of a story that drives forward at a steady pace and has a clear and defined structure to it. In television, we had ‘24’ which – regardless of your opinions on it – was a ground-breaking show when it was developed. ‘Vast of Night’ has no pace, and so it lumbers around for ten minutes or so while someone fannies about with a switchboard. It then rushes around like a nutter and then suddenly, you’re watching someone spool reels of tape for a quarter of an hour so they can spend who-knows how long sitting and talking quietly and meanderingly about seemingly nothing.
Because there is no pace, there is nothing to be paced. A couple of bits of dialogue, a little bit of looking at some illuminated trees and that’s basically your lot. The film is plotless. It should have been a film about two young people discovering a mysterious radio wave that leads them to investigate and uncover local secrets. Along the way, the encounter mysterious people who have fascinating histories and eventually they realise that the town is being visited by UFO’s. Upon making this realisation, a frantic scrabble ensues to validate the claims and get some first-hand evidence culminating in a spectacular and jaw-dropping alien encounter.
That sounds like a film I’d like to see. What I didn’t want was to sit for seventeen days watching something where the grand finale felt as hollow and meaningless as the characters that discovered it. The alien ships look to have been lifted directly out of ‘Close Encounters’ and animate with all the finesse and style of an episode of ‘Captain Planet’.
Some try to argue that it’s a low-budget film that’s looking to create atmosphere and tension without resorting to special effects. After all, CGI may be impressive, but it’s expensive and overused to the point of being abused in modern cinema. It was nice to have a film that was trying to be a bit more honest with its core values, but this still doesn’t excuse the total lack of soul.
Ultimately, I can’t recommend this film to anyone other than students of film looking to research technical aspects of film-making. If you want to be entertained, if you want something that will tickle your emotions, if you want a story to make you think, if you want characters that expand your understand of the human condition, you’ll be horribly disappointed with ‘The Vast of Night’.
Instead, use your imagination. Let it take you to somewhere happy. A vibrant, colourful land full of hope and wonder and possibility. Where ideas flourish and laughter is the only currency. And imagine that in this land of infinite happiness, there is no physical copy nor any streaming service where ‘Swiss Army Man’ is available.
A reason why you should watch it: It’s ‘technically’ quite clever.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: It’s lacking in EVERY other respect and is actually a bit shit.