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THE VAST OF THE NIGHT [Edinburgh Film Festival]

Written By:

Andrew Marshall
The Vast of Night1


On the night of a town basketball game, a local radio host and a switchboard operator discover a strange signal being intercepted on the airwaves. As they investigate the source, they begin to uncover the details of a conspiracy hiding the fact that life on earth might not be all that’s out there. With such a familiar-sounding premise, you’ve probably got a pretty clear idea of the kind of direction in which this story is going to go. And you would be entirely correct.

There is nothing especially wrong with The Vast of Night. On the contrary, it’s an eerily-shot slow-burning mystery with a gradually revealed plot and creepy visuals. Its plot and story might also have been a compelling and innovative experience taking you in new and exciting directions, if only it had been made about 60 years ago. The film is a meticulously reconstructed throwback to the kind of ‘50s sci-fi that was all desert town mystery, shady government cover ups and steadfast belief in life from the stars, and in the respect of recreating that feel of wonder and paranoia it’s a perfect achievement. Unfortunately, the film gets so bogged down in ensuring that every aspect about it is such a perfect imitation that it forgets to find anything new to say.

An opening sequence doesn’t do anything to truly introduce the story, but does set you up well for the lengthy meandering tracking shots that must be endured without break, as well as overwritten dialogue that aims for a naturalistic feel by way of people talking at length about things that have no relevance to anything, forcing you to concentrate on every insignificant detail in the hope of gleaning something relevant to an actual story. The static framing and interminable monologues make the story feel as though it were initially written as a stage play or an audio drama, the accompanying visual component of the cinematic medium causing you to expect content of greater substance that the film doesn’t deliver.

The conceit is that the events are a televised recreation of a pseudo-Twilight Zone TV show, beginning with an introduction that is a clear riff on Rod Serling’s seminal anthology series, and also periodically reminds you of this by having the film image fade to the monochromatic, cathode ray flickering of retro TV sets. Not only does this take you out of the illusion of the film, but it also never pays off in any meaningful way.

Technically speaking, The Vast of Night is a well-made film that perfectly evokes the time and place in which it’s set, but narratively everything about it feels too familiar to stand out, ultimately failing to distinguish itself in any way from the dozens of decades-old works to have inspired it.

Andrew Marshall

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