The Vast of Night (2020)
Written by James Montague & Craig W. Sanger
Directed by Andrew Patterson
A story about an alien visitation in New Mexico during the 1950s doesn’t sound terribly original or compelling on the surface. However, the way The Vast of Night is presented with gorgeous cinematography, inventive scene framing, and a narrative that unfolds almost entirely in real-time is what propels into another level of filmmaking. I sat down with moderate hopes after hearing some positive buzz and walked away, absolutely loving this movie. The picture is made by people who fully understand the genre they are delving into and are intelligent enough to play with the tropes. This delivers a film couched in genre expectations but able to explode in fascinatingly unexpected directions.
One night in Cayuga, New Mexico, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) hears a strange audio frequency coming over the phone lines. She receives bizarre calls, distorted & disconnecting in the middle of conversations. Fay contacts Everett, a local radio D.J., to help her investigate. This sends them on a whirlwind evening of speaking with an Army veteran, an elderly woman with a strange tale, and a couple who claim to have seen something in the sky. Ultimately, Fay & Everett find their answers in a finale that brings them face to face with what they have heard about all night.
The Vast of Night is framed as an episode of Paradox Theater, a very obvious pastiche of The Twilight Zone. That immediately informs us we’re watching a performance, specifically an older style of drama. In the 1950s, there were several “playhouse” shows that were filmed stage plays. The Twilight Zone was a science fiction version of these programs. Also, the radio play tradition is incorporated into The Vast of Night. There’s a crucial scene where Everett receives a phone call from a man with information about the sound coming through the lines. During this scene, when the caller begins to speak, the screen moves to black. I was anticipating that they were going to show a reenactment of what the man described, but the director leaves that to our imaginations.
Old technology is showcased throughout the film. The opening scene follows Everett has he helps get equipment set up to broadcast that night’s high school basketball game. Fay approaches him with a small reel to reel recorder and microphone she just got, and they play around recording their conversation. Later, we spend a considerable amount of time with Fay as she operates the switchboard, and then we visit Everett in the radio station, where we glimpse the tech he’s working with. Fay shares half-remembered news items from a futurist magazine she reads about revolutionary forms of transportation predicted in the next century, all of them slightly close to the truth of our time but still very much off.
For a small budget production, The Vast of Night feels like all those things we love about movies, especially in the summer. While J.J. Abrams tried to recreate the sensation of a classic Spielberg film in Super 8, he only managed to mimic. This picture has its own style but still retains that exciting energy found in Close Encounters or E.T. There’s a real momentum as if we were holding the hands of the characters as they whisked through this narrative. Yet it knows when to pause and let the actors have the show with some fantastic dialogue and monologues. Yes, there are little flaws here and there, but the experience of watching The Vast of Night fills that void right now of light summer fare. Very well worth the time and worth multiple viewings.