There’s somethin’ in the sky!
Two 1950’s teenagers discover a vast conspiracy in this riff on sci-fi television and radio serials
The Vast of Night
Directed by Andrew Patterson
Screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger
Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horwitz, Gail Cronauer, and Bruce Davis
Now Streaming on Amazon Prime
The opening of director Andrew Patterson’s debut feature The Vast of Night is an impressive layout of all the treats this movie has to offer. It begins by zooming in on and then entering an old TV playing a Twilight Zone-esque show called Paradox Theater Hour, displaying a fond self-awareness of the sci-fi mystery genre. As the camera enters the television, the black and white screen turns to color and we're in Cayuga, New Mexico, where we meet Everett (Jake Horwitz), a clever teenage disc jockey, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a bright tech nerd working as switchboard operator, both fast-talking locals with an interest in the bubbling new world of 1950’s technology. As the two walk around and help set up recordings for the high school basketball game, we get to know them and their small town. It’s full of personality, period slang, and quirky stories that everyone’s heard but no one’s tired of telling, much like the film itself.
The opening minutes are fun and exciting. Beautiful tracking shots with smoky coloring capture energetic and naturalistic performances and dialogue, which entrench us so deeply into this world that there is no need for exposition. A series of lines said by Mrs. McBroom (Pam Dougherty), an older woman who works at the school, sticks out upon rewatch. She’s been sent to fetch Everett to help some town’s men fix an electrical problem in the gym. “They don’t tell me anything. They don’t listen to me,” she says repeatedly of the men fixing the electrics. She told them to turn the power off during a tornado but they didn’t listen, and now it’s broken. She could help, but they won’t tell her what’s broken now, telling her to fetch Everett even though she told them he has his job to get to. At first glance, it’s one of those funny moments of tired small town elders, bickering over the littlest of things. But looking back from the end of the film, it’s here the movie clues us in to a theme of the voices in ’50’s America that were heard and those that were ignored and silenced by prejudice.
As night falls in smalltown, south-western America, we enter — as the opening titles of Paradox Theater tell us — a place “between logic and myth”, a “secret museum of mankind” located in the “private library of shadows.” When Everett and Fay hear a mysterious sound coming over the airwaves and through the phone lines, coupled with distressed callers being cut off and shouting about something in the sky above town, they do what any good protagonists would do: begin searching for answers. And just like the best episodes of the Twilight Zone or the best sci-fi radio serials or movies of ’50s, their journey reveals strange, shadowy secrets that create a museum of Cold War America’s failings.
To say much more would endanger spoiling some of the best parts of the movie. It surprises at every turn in narrative twists, daring directorial choices, and heartbreakingly real performances. Director Patterson and his collaborators have a clear mastery of all three. The movie is keen to show off with long takes exploring the town and dancer-like camera movement and editing that bring us the energy of discovery. Interspersed there are stretches of intense monologues and physically still dialogue scenes where the camera focuses on one individual, the screen fades between the wide-screen color world, the fuzzy black and white square of a television set, and occasionally even pure darkness, allowing the voice to take over. Every look, every reaction, and every word had me on the edge of my seat, simultaneously eager and afraid to see or hear the next sliver of information in this audiovisual experience.
The movie works through familiar touchstones of sci-fi short stories and alien-centered Spielberg films, but in ways that feel wholly new, exciting, and interesting. The film is both a thriller and a parable, giving us a tangible world and people to hook on to, yet keeping us at arms length with its stylistic methods that show us the social commentary of a great story. The Vast of Night is a great story and first feature, topical with its social commentary and revisionist view on history and genre, and the most enthralling piece of fiction I’ve witnessed this year.