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film review

Set in 1950s New Mexico, The Vast of Night tells the story of a young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) who discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town forever.Amazon Prime Video

  • The Vast of Night
  • Directed by Andrew Patterson
  • Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger
  • Starring Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick
  • Classification PG; 89 minutes

Rating:

3.5 out of 4 stars

Director Andrew Patterson makes exactly one false move in his inventive and pulse-quickening feature debut – and it’s right at the beginning. By framing his low-fi, sci-fi tale as a lost episode of a Twilight Zone-esque TV series called Paradox Theatre, Patterson and his screenwriters, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, let slip their intentions and ambitions too early, while also unnecessarily steeping whatever comes next in the coddling comfort of easy, whiz-bang nostalgia. The conceit is like a pre-emptive apology to genre fans who might be confused over the lack of alien antics in the film’s first half – don’t worry, guys, things will get super weird soon enough.

Once you get over this initial misstep, The Vast of Night works to an absurdly good degree. It’s 1950-something in the small New Mexico town of Cayuga and everyone is crammed into the high-school gym watching the Statesmen basketball team open the season. Everyone except for Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who work part-time as a radio DJ and switchboard operator, respectively. And wouldn’t you know, the one night Cayuga is distracted en masse is the same night that a strange audio frequency pops up, with the two wise-beyond-their-years teens left to face an unknown force that could change Cayuga, and the world, as they know it.

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The film uses language to bat around questions of belief, science, fear and wonder.Amazon Prime Video

What might seem like a familiar kids-against-aliens tale on paper is elevated by Patterson’s ingenious technical skill and the script’s rat-a-tat-tat wit. As if Close Encounters of the Third Kind was written by Aaron Sorkin, but not nearly as annoying as that sounds, The Vast of Night uses language to bat around questions of belief, science, fear and wonder.

Alternately deploying twisty monologues and quick back-and-forth exchanges, Montague and Sanger are clearly having a ball. They’re not only riffing on obvious inspirations such as Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Twilight Zone mastermind Rod Serling, but also the modern ubiquity of podcasts and their propensity for devolving into audio fabulism. (Helping matters immensely are the instantly charming performances of McCormick and Horowitz, the latter of whom has a drawling, comforting Sam Rockwell-esque vibe.)

Working with a minuscule budget, Patterson pulls off a feat as amazing as any flying saucer. From an impressive tracking shot that traces the entirety of Cayuga to the film’s claustrophobic middle half – in which Everett and Fay find themselves trying to figure out if they’re witnessing the end of the world from their tiny workspaces – the director consistently finds inventive ways to reconfigure expectations of the genre and his resources.

To borrow Serling’s familiar Twilight Zone opening – sorry, that should be Paradox Theatre’s opening – The Vast of Night is located in the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. Thank goodness for its dimension of imagination.

The Vast of Night is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting May 29.

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