It’s nighttime in late ‘50s New Mexico. Residents of the tiny town of Cayuga, population 492, are gathering in the high school gymnasium, ready to cheer for the student basketball team as they face their rivals. But outside the lit-up court, bright local kids Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick) mosey the streets with a tape recorder, musing on the viability of technology they’ve read about in science magazines: vactrains, electrified roads, and even portable TV phones that fit in your pocket.
Unfolding in a series of long takes, this is the intriguing set-up of “The Vast of Night,” a gripping genre pastiche rich in sci-fi motifs. The debut feature from Andrew Patterson, the film pays homage to sci-fi classics like Jack Arnold’s “It Came from Outer Space” while playing like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The movie’s writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, even frame the entire film as an episode of a fictional “Twilight Zone”-style TV series called “Paradox Theater.”
The story begins with Everett, a recent high school graduate and local radio host, preparing to DJ his station for the night. On his way he runs into Fay, an aspiring teen journalist who works evenings as a switchboard operator. But once they get to work, eerie things start to happen. Fay takes a call from a panicked woman who describes large objects hovering in the sky; soon after, Everett’s show is interrupted by an uncanny clicking sound.
Everett and Fay’s jobs — which require them to be surrounded by old-timey gadgets — provide plenty of space for authentic evocations of midcentury Americana. During his radio show, Everett claims that his station will award a lucky listener with a piece of Elvis Presley’s carpet. (We later learn the rug sliver is a fake.) Cold War anxieties also pervade the setting; when Fay plays Everett the supernatural-sounding audio cutting into his broadcast, he reckons that it’s the Soviets. These ‘50s references serve to ground the sci-fi elements in history, suggesting an age of tension and paranoia.
Though the movie takes a TV episode as its framework — complete with fades-to-black indicating “commercial breaks” — Everett and Fay’s jobs, both conducive to listening to others’ stories, also set the movie up to mimic ‘50s sci-fi radio programs. Significant portions of “The Vast of Night” are filled with characters’ oral histories: we hear at length from Billy (Bruce Davis), a disabled veteran, and an elderly woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer). We meet both of these characters as callers into Everett’s show, where they share detailed alien-encounter stories akin to tales shared on ‘50s radio programs like Mutual’s “2000 Plus” or NBC’s “Dimension X.” In “The Vast of Night,” Billy and Mabel’s sequences unfold in captivating long takes of absolute stillness, drawing our attention toward the gripping monologue storytelling.
Within Billy and Mabel’s stories, Patterson is deliberate in employing sci-fi hallmarks: bizarre military orders, children with paranormal powers, footsteps leading into the desert with no return. From Mabel, Everett learns a phrase in a strange tongue that, when recited, causes people’s eyes to glaze over and turn toward the sky. Through each of these sequences, Patterson allows tension to mount with the mystery before culminating in a deliciously ambiguous finale.
Brimming with Eisenhower-era detail and quintessential genre tropes, “The Vast of Night” is a moody throwback to sci-fi’s golden age. Even the movie’s title is evocative, conjuring an expansive darkness full of mystery and peril. And while Patterson is crystal-clear in his acknowledgement of sci-fi classics, the tropes are never played clumsily. Rather, they’re winking curios in an inventive drama all its own.
“The Vast of Night” is available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.