Ranking highly on my own personal list of film criticism pet peeves is the far too broadly held assumption that for a genre film to be considered truly brilliant, it needs to somehow transcend genre itself and be, well, less ‘genre-y’. There’s an assumption that excellence in genre filmmaking demands not merely breaking the mold, but implicitly requires a shift from the lowbrow terrain where genre movies are still far too frequently positioned and towards a realm far more highbrow in nature. A good genre film, from this perspective, can only attain real greatness if it therefore is open on some level to shedding some of its inherent ‘genre-ness’.
As British film academic Professor Steve Neale once importantly noted, from a historical perspective film genres as a broad industrial and cultural phenomenon endure in large part because there’s a functional tension that drives them, propelled by what I can crudely paraphrase as the ‘same by a little bit different’ idea. Film genres need to be recognizable enough for audiences to identify them as a genre in the first place, but they also need to be fresh enough to maintain the interest of that same audience. From this perspective, it’s useful to reframe the question ‘what makes a good genre film great?’ by focusing not specifically on how a given film differs from other movies in the same category, but also where and how they overlap.
Enter Andrew Patterson’s feature debut, the science fiction movie The Vast of Night. I’ve taken a somewhat indirect path to get here, but the question ‘what makes a genre film great’ is fundamental here because – and make absolutely no mistake about it – The Vast of Night is extraordinary. This is the kind of film even the most experienced filmmakers can only dream of pulling off; many try, but most don’t get it even half as right as this one does.
Parallels with early Spielberg are perhaps both obvious and undeniably accurate, but this is no mere fan-fic. Patterson – assisted by an exquisite screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger which is carried by career-making performances by the perfectly cast Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz – has crafted something both instantly familiar and, simultaneously, jaw-droppingly audacious. The Vast of Night understands with an almost surgical precision an intuitive, rigorous familiarity with the most delicate mechanical components that make genre not just function, but make it excel.
On paper, The Vast of Night might not look like anything particularly new. Set in the 1950s, two teens in small-town New Mexico uncover a shocking secret that involves a military conspiracy, lights in the sky and strange disappearances. McCormick’s Fay Crocker is a sixteen-year-old switchboard operator infatuated with her new cassette recorder, pinning her future dreams and ambitions on technology as a gateway into all the hope and promise the future holds. She turns to fast-talking, charming local radio DJ Everett – played by Horowitz – to teach her the ropes. Together, across one night, the ambitious, curious pair uncover far more than they bargained for after Fay plugs through an intriguing caller to Everett during a live broadcast of his regular radio show.
If there’s a homespun familiarity to the basic plot of The Vast of Night, Patterson amplifies that sense of nostalgic warmth and intimacy by framing Fay and Everett’s adventure as an episode of a fictional television series called Paradox Theater, a program heavy on its overt Twilight Zone references whose credits bookend the film. But more than a cute retro gimmick, the flickering cathode ray aesthetics of ye olde television culture of yore has a concrete thematic function within The Vast of Night; in key places, we leave the slick high-def world of the story world Fay and Everett inhabit and slide back into the blue fluttering roll of the old-styled tube TV; importantly, we’re never allowed to forget about artifice of media technology and how it is inextricably linked to the way stories are told, spread and proliferate.
This is where, quite organically, the thematic heart of the film lies; it’s a confident, subtle and deeply intelligent reflection of how history and myth take shape through these technologies, and yet the film never slides into pompous soap-boxing or smug editorializing. First and foremost, The Vast of Night is just plain fun; it’s a near perfectly made film that simply dazzles in its ability to balance being a really solid genre film with that magical and almost ethereal ‘something else’ that bubbles away under its surfaces. The Vast of Night is that rare gift of a film where all the elements combine in perfect harmony, a timely reminder that a great genre film doesn’t need to transcend genre as much as it needs to deeply love, respect and understand it.