Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us — Orson Welles, War of the Worlds (1938, radio broadcast)
The first time I heard Welles’ War of the Worlds, it was in a college radio class. I was spellbound. It immediately conjured a crystal clear concept of what aliens were and how we would come to encounter them. Listening, it’s understood right away the great effect it must have had on the listenership. It was taught to us, with an eye for the unlimited possibilities of the radio — Orson Welles’ genius being one of great audiovisual invention — a true mind for the radio and the soundscape of the movies. It was self-evident: this broadcast would change everything, and so it did.
The Vast of Night establishes the arrival of fresh director Andrew Patterson, who has arrived wholly capable and fully formed. He has some darn good tracking shots. It’s clear where his influences come from, he is deeply indebted to Welles. What works in his picture is an intentional disregard for evolution and trends from the last several phases of the Sci-Fi movement. It takes the scenic route, distancing itself from the SciFi tropes of its contemporaries, and settling into a comfortable, old-school expression of extraterrestrial ideals.
When the shots are not tracking shots, an immersive radio drama plays out. It does not find much new area to embark on the classic format, but it gives significant nods. The whole story plays out in the studio of a school radio station — it’s call letters are WOTW, a call signal which is impossible since it’s west of the Mississippi and so must start with a K — so we know just how reverential it is.
Despite having some fun with its camera, it does not create so many captivating images that it has to be a movie. It could function, perhaps even more successfully, closer to the form of its inspiration. Yes, it’s beholden to that famous moment on radio and sticks close to that source, but it could benefit from being even closer. It would go over gangbusters as a podcast — a theater of the mind radio show that reflects its contents.
There is also a small problem of worldbuilding. We do not ever believe the characters when they hammer us over the head with period-specific detail. It could not mean much to us when the film’s soundboard operator, played by Sierra McCormick, rattles off all the impending inventions, as she has seen in tech trades. And then the radio host, a playful Jake Horowitz, does not care to believe her prescient information. It does not matter to us that she knows that someday our phones will be pocket televisions, or that all cars will be self-driving. It would be more interesting to establish the time they are in.
As it plays, The Vast of Night is a fine little picture. It’s serviceable and works as a resume builder. It ought to get director Patterson some deserved work on future projects. He shows a keen understanding of how to pace a story. There is lingering suspicion, with some confidence, that it would all just work better on the radio. With that said, the radio nerd inside me is more delighted by its interest in the format and its past, than anything else that happens on-screen.