Decoding Amazon Prime Video's indie sci-fi film The Vast of Night, and the politics of alien invasion dramas
The Vast of Night is a notably low-key entrant in an old, politically contentions Hollywood genre; the alien invasion drama
The creeping rise of authoritarianism, racism and now a literal pandemic — it’s no surprise that a lot of us feel like we’re living in an episode of The Twilight Zone at the moment. And after Jordan Peele’s official reboot last year, Rod Serling’s beloved show received another tribute/shout-out recently, in the opening scene of The Vast of Night, an indie science fiction film digitally released on Amazon Prime Video on 29 May. Directed by debutant Andrew Patterson, the film begins by focusing on a 50s/60s era TV set, where a Serling-like presenter informs the audience that they’re now watching ‘Paradox Theatre’, a fictionalised alter-ego of The Twilight Zone, complete with era-appropriate sound mixing and the grainy texture of the visuals. This opening gambit is just one of the many inspired stylistic touches Patterson employs during The Vast of Night.
The story is a straightforward one — two teenagers in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico, a local RJ called Everett (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator, Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), investigate the strange sounds coming over the radio /switchboard on a night where just about everybody’s at the local high school, watching a basketball game. Fay and Everett have reasons to believe that the sounds might be coming from a UFO — the precursor to an alien invasion.
The Vast of Night is a masterclass in optimising a limited budget and extracting the maximum mileage out of every single aspect of the filmmaking process.
The brilliant 50s-style lamp-lit rooms (Everett’s recording room as well as the room with Fay’s switchboard) evoking classic Americana have been rightly praised for their detailing. The sound design/mixing is nothing short of virtuosic and will almost certainly be rewarded with an Oscar nod. The entire middle section of the film, a 30-40 minute stretch, is basically two back-to-back conversations Everett has with people who believe there’s an alien invasion afoot — the sound design (you really do feel like you’re listening to an old-fashioned radio mystery) and the visual style are what really keeps you hooked during this sequence.
When Everett begins talking to an African-American veteran called Billy (Bruce Davis), the visual style shifts to the ‘Twilight’ mode — your field of vision is literally framed by a black-and-white TV set, the kind with rounded edges, grainy visuals and a signature bluish glow. The sound design follows suit, with the heaviness and the static and just the hint of a reverb. This is the filmmaker’s signal that an old-timey conspiracy theory is afoot; sure enough, Billy claims that the Army used him and other African-American soldiers to transport some mysterious cargo. He also claims that as a result, he and many other soldiers fell seriously ill afterwards, fuelling rumors of other-worldly radiation. In the middle of Billy’s story, the screen slowly fades to black — we are now officially in the middle of a radio mystery. Shortly after the visuals return, the ‘Twilight’ mode fades into the film’s ‘regular’, lamp-lit style while focusing on Everett’s face — a trip back to reality, as it were.
The other bravura sequence in the film (the one that has most critics clapping) is a sensational long tracking shot about half an hour into proceedings — before that moment, The Vast of Night is shot pretty much in the indie movie style, small and intimate. But when Fay moves away from her switchboard and out into the open to meet Everett, the camera takes us on a trip across the small town of Cayuga, at the kind of pace a small-town motorcycle might adopt (not slow, but not super-fast either; in any case, Steven Moffat’s unthinking over-use has ruined the super-fast tracking shot for everyone).
These are scenes that ought to be used by film/media schools, as an example of first-rate bootstrap filmmaking.
The politics of the alien invasion drama
The Vast of Night is a notably low-key entrant in an old, politically contentions Hollywood genre; the alien invasion drama — here, the operative word is ‘invasion’, so cutesy 70s Spielberg fare like E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t count. We’re talking about films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was about aliens replacing humans with perfect copies that do not feel any emotion.
In the early years of this genre, the alien invasion was a straightforward metaphor for the USA being invaded, possibly by Russia and its allies (like in the 1984 movie Red Dawn). The 1970s were, after all, the height of the Cold War and there was nothing scarier than the Red Scare. It should also be noted that until Jimmy Carter narrowly defeated Gerald Ford in 1977, this was a Republican decade and these scare tactics were straight out of the conservative playbook.
The 1990s onwards, however, films representing this genre took on a very different tonality. The Cold War, after all, was over and there was no longer a formidable foreign entity that the aliens could be plausible stand-ins for. Independence Day (1996), therefore, was probably the last of these America-stands-up-for-liberty films. And even here, you had a black man (Will Smith) leading the human counter-attack against the aliens; a perfect example of Democratic tokenism (we’re a hegemony, but let a black man be the figurehead) in the 90s.
In the 2000s, a new pattern could be spotted in the alien invasion drama — the reformation of the struggling father figure. Films like Signs (2002) and War of the Worlds (2005) saw A-listers like Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise acting as stand-ins for paternalistic government structures/leaders. And because the people’s faith in the government had reduced considerably, thanks to first the Clinton impeachment and then, of course, 9/11, these stand-in characters were also shown to be struggling — Gibson’s character in Signs, tellingly, is a ex-priest who has turned his back on God after his wife’s death in a car crash. By the end, however, these protagonists are reformed, thus reaffirming the audience’s enduring faith in ‘the American way’ (I mean, smacking aliens over the head with a baseball bat? That right there is on-the-nose Americana).
Where does The Vast of Night fit in on this political spectrum? This question is answered in a crucial second-half scene in the movie, when Everett and Fay are talking to Mabel (Gail Cronoauer), a fellow Cayuga resident who claims that years ago, the aliens abducted her baby boy who was never seen again. Mabel also claims that aliens have been mind-controlling people in Cayuga and elsewhere for a long time now.
“I think they like people alone and I think they talk to people with some advanced radio in their sleep. I think at the lowest level, they send people on errands. They make people do things, think in certain ways, so that we stay in conflict, focused on ourselves. (…) I’ve seen good people go bad, and smart people go mad. I think at the highest level, they do things that cause nations to go to war, impossible things. We all find different reasons for these things, but the truth is that there’s no free will with them up there.”
What is Mabel’s little speech, especially the ‘good people go bad, smart people go mad’ bit, if not a desperate cry for America to wake up from the MAGA-nightmare they’re currently living through? Every single line here can be read as an allegory for hate speech influencing impressionable people, leading them towards racist, sexist and homophobic behaviors — all the way up to the ‘nations go to war’ bit which can be addressed directly to Trump. ‘No free will with them up there’ translates to “until we get rid of the Trump presidency, nobody is truly free”.
To sum up, The Vast of Night is one of the most original science fiction films in a long time, whether you find yourself nodding to the political allegories or not. It upholds some conventions of the alien invasion drama while upending others — and most importantly, it’s never not fun.
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