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Fantastic Fest: Gimmick in 'The Vast of Night' just turns into noise

Matt Shiverdecker Special to the American-Statesman
"The Vast of Night" screened at Fantastic Fest 2019. [CONTRIBUTED BY FANTASTIC FEST]

A good film gimmick can go a long way in setting up a story. Andrew Patterson's decision to set up his debut film, "The Vast of Night," as though it was a story on a "Twilight Zone"-esque '50s television broadcast was more distracting than amusing. The film screened Friday at Fantastic Fest in Austin.

We start in black and white on a tiny TV screen using the intro of the "Paradox Theater" program to help land the credit sequence and quickly pan out to a full-color widescreen image.

Suddenly we're in a gymnasium, and everybody is getting ready for a big high school basketball game in Cayuga, New Mexico. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is inexplicably the prime-time DJ on this small town's radio station and the go-to guy for technical problems with the school's audio-visual equipment. While at the gym, he runs into his friend Fay (Sierra McCormick) who, also rather inexplicably, is a telephone operator in the evenings (do adults have jobs in this town?).

He shows her how to use her fancy new tape recorder that she ordered from a department store catalog before we follow them on one of the film's several impressive tracking shots across town. Their walk includes a lot of conversation about the future of self-driving cars and personal telephones until the two fast-talking teens both part ways to go to work.

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Off and on, the movie decides to remind us that we're still watching "Paradox Theater," and the image of the story will jump back to the black-and-white television screen for a moment before we dive back into the more conventional look of the film. Every time this happened, it just took me out of the story and felt totally unnecessary. That said, maybe I should just be grateful that the creative team behind the movie didn't decide to shoot the whole thing in a black-and-white square Academy aspect ratio with fake broadcast distortion and artifacts for 90 minutes?

Settling in at work, Fay has her radio tuned into Everett's show and notices that a weird noise interrupted his broadcast slightly before she hears the same noise through her headset when trying to connect a phone call on her board. This leads the pair down a rabbit hole where they work together to broadcast the noise on the radio station to see if anybody knows what it is. They get a very detailed call from a retired military man who claims he knows exactly what the sound is, as well as a second call from a woman who asks them to come to her house for all the answers.

As a person who actually used to be on the radio for six hours a day, I am curious as to who the audience for Everett's evening show is, because — at least on this particular night — he appears to just go on and off the air intermittently and leaves the station for long periods of time. Perhaps you can suspend your disbelief to not care about that detail (or the fact that he never seems to change the record that is playing), but as a former radio man it was just one of many moments that had me scratching my head.

And if the excitement of this interference is actually extraterrestrial life trying to make contact, the movie doesn't really make enough of a big deal about it. There is some fun in the chase, but everything is played too vaguely for me to truly care.

While I fully admit that the framing device fell flat for me, I enjoyed the overall style and found the lead actors to be very engaging. Ultimately, the story feels a little too vague, and the movie ends up obsessing more about getting the period details and visuals correct over offering a satisfying conclusion.

"The Vast Of Night" has been acquired by Amazon Studios and will be released in 2020.

Grade: C+