Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is one of the most astonishing debut sci-fi films in quite some time, being a tribute in equal parts to classic ‘50s genre television (say, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, as alluded to in its stylized intro) and the magic of radio storytelling in all of its forms — fictional, nonfictional, and all that exists in between. Its story will no doubt be somewhat familiar to those who have regularly tuned in to Coast to Coast AM over the years in order to dream about the unknown wonders of the universe, seemingly inspired (at least in part) by a 1997 incident in which host Art Bell was contacted by a very upset caller who claimed to have worked at Area 51. Bell’s satellite transmission was soon cut, mid-conversation, and his chat with the caller was cut short. The Vast of Night captures so smartly what it must have been like to have either been Bell himself or listening on that fateful night, but repackages it in a period-appropriate way and setting.
It’s the late ’50s, and nearly every resident of Cayuga, New Mexico, is packed into their small high school gymnasium to cheer on their basketball team at the start of a new season. It’s a town of barely 490 people, and it feels like the only two people missing the game are Fay (Sierra McCormack), a high schooler who moonlights as a switchboard operator to support her single mother and young sister, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), the town’s cigarette-puffing slick disc jockey. The two are friends, and, that night, when Fay’s confronted by a weird noise coming over one of the lines that she doesn’t know or understand what it is, she calls Everett for help. The DJ has no idea what the harsh, metallic sound is, but he’s curious about it, and so he decides to play it over the radio just a bit to see if anyone recognizes it. At around the same time, some townspeople start seeing weird lights in the sky. From there, the two will be drawn into a weird and wonderful journey towards discovering “the truth” about those crafts — and the odd history the UFOs have with the town itself.
McCormack and Horowitz do an excellent job of capturing the essence of their period archetypes — the former finds some amount of grit in the peppy, bookish Fay; and Horowitz digs a lot deeper into Everett’s motivations and posturing than one might expect. All of their solid work, of course, depends on a smartly-constructed script, and writers Craig W. Sanger and James Montague have delivered one that’s equal parts witty, deep and roughly era-accurate. Characters throw out slang and crack jokes at almost a breakneck pace, but it’s all underlined by a formal rigidity that makes the entire experience feel roughly one-of-a-kind in our modern genre landscape. That’s not to suggest that idea-driven indie sci-fi like this is an aberration — films like Coherence and Shane Carruth’s output have rightfully found homes in the hearts of film fanatics everywhere — but it’s rare to see that kind of polish and prestige applied to an indie project that isn’t totally embarrassed by its origins.
To Patterson’s credit, and much like Byrkit did in Coherence, the young director keeps what is essentially a stage play incredibly cinematic. Take, for instance, when a caller into the radio station begins to parcel out bits and pieces of information from his days working at an underground government facility — lesser filmmakers would have, perhaps, cut to the caller, sitting in a room shrouded in mystery like Deep Throat in All the President’s Men, but here Patterson keeps the emphasis on Horowitz’s face, as he processes this incredible and potentially-bullshit story. Occasionally, he fades out to a totally black screen at strategic moments, insisting that we, along with our leads, dream about the dark wonders that the man is revealing over the air. And, of course, when the feed or the call is inevitably lost, Patterson snaps back to attention and creates some truly nerve-rattling moments of tension. He’s an incredible talent, and it’s hard not to wonder what he’ll do next.
The Vast of Night feels like one of those movies that sci-fi fans will hold close to their hearts for the next ten or 20 years — perhaps not as a wholly-recognized classic of the genre, but as something that, decades earlier, they would have traded tapes of at the local Star Trek convention. It has the passion of a fan film, but still retains the polish and quality of films with larger budgets and smaller hearts. This is a must-watch whenever it drops on Prime Video next year (Editor’s Note: That time is now), and I hope that the bigwigs at Amazon do the right thing and give this film an honest-to-god theatrical roll out before dumping it in the streaming content ocean. Regardless, you won’t be disappointed spending an hour and a half with these characters and in this setting, and I hope you’ll take the plunge.