When you think of sci-fi, particularly with regard to alien life, you may expect terror — fear of the unknown. But “The Vast of Night” feels different than something like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” because there is more of a wondrous quality to it; the characters are curious but not afraid.
The film opens with what is revealed to be a transitional tool throughout the movie’s run time: radio wave imagery with music playing. It then switches to a midcentury living room, zooming in on the retro-futuristic television. A Rod Serling-esque narrator introduces “Paradox Theatre,” the program in which the main story takes place. In case you couldn’t tell, the homage to “The Twilight Zone” isn’t subtle, but there’s something comforting in the familiarity.
The “episode” takes place in Cayuga, New Mexico — a very small Southern town — in the late 1950s. It’s not long before we meet our teenage protagonists, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick). The former is a fast-moving (and possibly even faster-talking), confident young man who is a radio DJ in the evenings and, seemingly, a mentor to a number of people. The latter is a somewhat meek but also talkative young girl who not only looks up to Everett but also has a bit of an infatuation.
The filmmakers do a lot of showing (not telling) when introducing the protagonists. Writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger and first-time director Andrew Patterson use the characters’ actions and conversations to explain who they are; there are no blatant expositions. There is a 10- or 15-minute-long scene in which Everett is teaching Fay to use her new tape recorder. Despite the mention of Fay being interested in science, she appears to want to do her own form of audio journalism — another giveaway of how much she admires Everett.
There are a couple of fun little things thrown into that conversation too: Fay goes on about electronic cars that will drive themselves, vacuum tubes that would make planes and trains obsolete and TVs you can carry in your pocket and use to call your friends (where you’ll even see their face on the screen!). Some of it is clearly the typical 1950s ideal of the future, while other pieces are a little wink to the technologies available to us today.
They split up so that Everett can go work at the radio station, WOTW, and Fay can go work the town’s switchboard. That’s when things get weird. Fay notices a strange sound coming from one of the calls that comes in, and then the call gets cut off. She plays it for Everett, who then publicizes it using the radio station and asking for explanations. They get a call from a black man named Billy (voice work by Bruce Davis), who tells them about his time in the military. He doesn’t know much, but he knows one thing: Whatever makes that sound isn’t military — from any country. He explains to Everett that any time the military needed people to work on a secret mission like that, they would choose Mexicans and black people, because the people in charge knew no one would listen to their stories.
An elderly woman named Mabel (Gail Cronauer) later calls in and asks Everett to come to her house, because she too has a story regarding the sound. As soon as he and Fay arrive, Mabel says, “I hope this is a news story. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.”
I won’t give away what happens after that, but I will say that this movie is focused on conversations more than anything. The relationship between Everett and Fay takes center stage here, and while she has a crush on him, he seems to think of her more as a younger sister; even she appears to recognize that. Horowitz and McCormick have a charismatic, non-romantic chemistry between them. Their dialogues don’t feel forced or overwritten — they’re just two teenagers dealing with something much bigger than them (or their hometown). Cronauer’s quasi-monologue in the film’s third act is riveting, and her character gives the audience a narrative you’d expect from a sci-fi film exploring visitors from outer space.
While “The Twilight Zone” is an obvious reference here, it’s hard not to think of other media that have informed the creation of “The Vast of Night.” Possibly the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) radio drama was “The War of the Worlds,” and this film has plenty of parallels. Of course, in this story, the aliens (or “people in the sky,” as they’re referred to in the movie) actually exist. “Roswell” is another obvious factor here, down to the story taking place in a small desert town in New Mexico. The 2008 horror film “Pontypool” is a bit less of a direct influence here, but a story centered around a radio DJ dealing with something as big as aliens (or zombies) and having almost no control over the situation makes it hard not to make comparisons.
Nevertheless, “The Vast of Night” doesn’t feel like a rehash of old stories or a direct ripoff of anything. It’s a fresh take on sci-fi drama with a hint of mystery. There is little (if any) horror here; there’s an incredibly tense scene that takes place inside a car, but it’s brief and that tension isn’t carried throughout the film. The score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer greatly contributes to the film’s tone, switching from atmospheric to lighthearted as the story dictates.
The narrative, characters, visuals and music all contribute to what makes “The Vast of Night” a successfully entertaining movie. It’s hard to believe that it was helmed by a director who had never made a movie before, yet Patterson did create a fully fleshed out world onscreen.
Despite the inherent fear that typically comes with talk of extraterrestrial beings, this movie is deeply comforting. It’s also only 90 minutes long, a welcome rarity in film these days. Of course, the loving receptions it received at Slamdance Film Festival, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Overlook Film Festival in 2019 (just to name a few) are all evidence of why Amazon Studios chose to acquire it. I doubt you’ll feel it was a waste of time if you spend an evening watching this film.
You can catch “The Vast of Night” with Amazon Prime starting May 29, 2020.
Originally hailing from Pennsylvania, Jackie has called Austin home since choosing to attend the University of Texas, where she graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism. She loves spending time with her dogs, writing about pop culture in all its forms and spending time with friends – eating, drinking and doing trivia.