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The surprise sci-fi movie that's killing it on Amazon Prime Video

Amazon's Prime Video streaming service is carving out a little niche for itself as the premiere stop for quality sci-fi content. Between recent original series like Upload and Tales from the Loop, strategic acquisitions like The Expanse, and forthcoming big-budget epics like Lord of the Rings: The Second Age and The Wheel of Time, it's a good time to be an Amazon subscriber with a geek streak.

The surprise hit currently burning up the charts on Amazon Prime Video certainly fits into this pattern. It's called The Vast of Night, a 2019 sci-fi film that sadly never had the chance to reach the wide audience that it deserved in theaters. Set in the 1950s in Cayuga, New Mexico, The Vast of Night centers around a switchboard operator named Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and a radio DJ called Everett (Jake Horowitz). When the two teenagers discover an aberrant audio frequency transmitting in the radio range — emanating through Fay's switchboard and interrupting Everett's broadcast of their high school basketball game — they team up to investigate its origins. 

James Montague and Craig W. Sanger co-wrote The Vast of Night, which is the directorial debut of Andrew Patterson, a name to watch in the industry. The flick premiered to widespread acclaim at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival, followed that debut with a limited release to drive-in movie theaters across the country, then finally reached Amazon Prime Video on May 29, 2020. With a keen eye and a unique approach to directing The Vast of Night, Patterson demonstrates serious cinematic chops in the near-flawless way he captures the style of classic science fiction anthology series like The Twilight Zone and Paradox Theatre. It's no wonder the movie won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at Slamdance and was a runner-up for People's Choice at TIFF.

And it isn't just high-brow critics who are enamored with The Vast of Night. It seems no one can get enough of the film.

The Vast of Night is already a critical darling

Audiences and critics don't always agree about the quality of a new movie — particularly in the sci-fi genre — but The Vast of Night has proven a unanimous crowd-pleaser. The movie currently holds a 92 percent Certified Fresh rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, signifying near-universal acclaim.

"It's remarkably sharp, funny, and ominous. A terrific debut," wrote Peter Rainer of KPCC's FilmWeek. Mark Kermode at The Guardian agreed with that assessment, adding, "That a film with such an apparently familiar narrative can keep us this intrigued is a credit to the filmmakers — particularly Patterson, from whom we should expect to hear much more in the future."

James Berardinelli of ReelReviews articulated a popular critical refrain, emphasizing the quality of the film's storytelling, even in the absence of eye-burning visual effects. "It's a stark reminder that ideas are more important than production budgets in crafting compelling science fiction," he wrote.

Now that streaming audiences have the opportunity to consume Patterson's creation en masse, the verdict is officially in: The Vast of Night is a triumph. It's a little counter-intuitive, but so many sci-fi films fail because of their bloated budgets. An over-reliance on the spectacle of dazzling visual effects often comes at the expense of quality plot and character development, and those failings will sink a massive space opera as easily as a quiet homage to the low-budget weird tales of the 1950s. Patterson is clearly the rare filmmaker who understands that story is everything, and that beauty can be wrought from the constraint of tight finances.

Alan Ng of Film Threat provided perhaps the most succinct summary of The Vast of Night's success when he wrote, "For me, the highest achievement of The Vast of Night is its artful storytelling."

The spooky inspirations behind The Vast of Night

The Twilight Zone and Paradox Theatre were obvious inspirations behind the way in which The Vast of Night's story was told — but what about the story itself? As it turns out, the film team took inspiration from a number of bizarre real-life occurrences. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, Patterson opened up about the spooky tales that influenced his film, beginning with the Kecksburg Incident of December 1965. 

"A lot of the plot for Everett, the DJ character, was inspired by the mystery surrounding a situation called the Kecksburg Incident, where a car-sized, acorn-shaped device dropped out of the sky and a local DJ started getting calls," said Patterson. Residents of the small town in Pennsylvania believed that debris ended up in the woods, causing U.S. military members to perform a sweep. Astronomers verified the streak in the sky and seismographs recorded the sonic booms that occurred, but the Air Force officially stated that nothing was found. "There's a part of the Kecksburg mythology where they went and looked at the trees where this item, this acorn thing, smashed down, and the branches are still broken in ways that indicate something very forceful ripped through," Patterson added. "We wanted that in our movie."

Other true-life events that inspired The Vast of Night were the disappearances of three teenagers that weren't solved until 44 years after the fact. In 1970, Jimmy Williams, Thomas Michael Rios, and Leah Gail Johnson went missing from Sayre, Oklahoma — just a year after three other adults from the area vanished without a trace. Williams was driving a 1969 Chevy Camaro with Rios and Johnson as passengers. They were on their way to a football game, but were never heard from again.

"Those kinds of stories are ripe for UFO tales and abduction anecdotes," noted Patterson. "If you started hearing the next morning that a couple of people had disappeared in the night, you would start to form your own theories immediately. 'Well, I think they might've had a little crush. Maybe they ran off together.' [...] I wanted [The Vast of Night's mystery] to be anything from as devious as a kidnapping to death somewhere. But in reality, we wanted the story to feel like it could go anywhere depending on what you believed as an individual."

Law enforcement finally solved the disappearances of Williams, Rios, and Johnson — as well as the three other adults that went missing a year prior — in 2013, using new sonar equipment to discover both trios' cars submerged in the Foss Lake reservoir in Washita River.

"Both cars were found right next to each to each other, under 12 feet of water, with all the skeletons of the missing parties accounted for," Patterson said. "That was an important anecdote for me, just knowing that things like this do happen and they have very logical explanation. But we tend to want to speculate on top of something that could be as simple as, oh, these people just drove into the water and they couldn't get out in time."

Clearly, Patterson pulled a lot of inspiration from the world around him and the media within in — both actual fiction and real-life incidents that seem stranger than fiction. If The Vast of Night ushers in a new age of plot-driven science fiction storytelling like many believe it might, then the future of the genre in film will be a bright one indeed.

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