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‘The Vast of Night’ a thoughtful sci-fi throwback

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When we think of sci-fi movies today, we tend to think of big, effects-driven events. We’re thinking about nine-figure budgets aimed mostly at either advancing franchises or originating them, the odd name director standalone project notwithstanding. These films allow for grand visual, visceral representation of the futuristic/alien/whatever worlds of their stories – and that grandness can cover up a lot of flaws.

But there’s a whole other tradition of cinematic sci-fi, one that can tell a commanding story without the bells and whistles. These films are the one that convey science fiction narratives through ideas, finding ways to engage and entertain without the trappings of spectacle. They are smaller films, with far less room for error – there’s no massive effects budget to distract from any missed choices. These indie offerings are much more warts and all.

“The Vast of Night” – newly streaming on Amazon Prime Video – falls very much into the latter category. The film, directed by first-timer Andrew Patterson from a script by James Montague and Craig Sanger, is a retro sci-fi delight telling the story of a fateful night in 1950s New Mexico where two young people find themselves in the midst of a mystery unlike anything anyone in their small town could ever have imagined.

The film leans heavily into its lo-fi high-concept underpinnings, going so far as to use a “Twilight Zone”-esque TV show called “Paradox Theatre” as a framing device. This isn’t about visual flourishes – though Patterson shows his clearly considerable stylistic talent in a few spots – so much as density of storytelling. The dialogue is thick and the pacing is deliberate, all in service to a narrative that unfolds in enigmatic quietude. It is atmospheric and creepy – and very good.

It’s a big night in the tiny town of Cayuga, New Mexico. The local high school is playing their basketball rivals; just about everyone in town is going to be there, rooting on their boys to pull out the win. Typical small-town stuff in the ‘50s.

Of course, in a place like this, everyone knows everyone. That includes young Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz, “Adam Bloom”), a DJ at local radio station WOTW. We meet him as he arrives at the high school gym at the behest of the broadcaster – apparently, there are some issues with the equipment that need fixing. Along the way, he bumps into his friend Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick, “VFW”), a high school student who wants his help with her new tape recorder.

After they part ways, Fay goes to her part-time gig working the town’s telephone switchboard. It’s a quiet night until a mysterious sound begins interfering with radio broadcasts and coming through the board. After checking with her co-workers to no avail, Fay reaches out to Everett at the station to ask for his help. He asks her to patch it through so that he can send the sound out over the airwaves.

Then things get … weird.

It turns out that there are others out there who have heard this sound before, people who may be unsure of its origins, but have some unsettling stories to share. And they are listening to Everett’s show. A caller named Billy (Bruce Davis, “The Turkey Bowl”) recalls the sound from mysterious military missions in his past. A woman named Mabel (Gail Cronauer, “Sleeping in Plastic”) shares some ominous sound-related information relating to her family.

And all the while, the same refrain is coming from those few who aren’t at the game tonight: there’s something in the sky.

“The Vast of Night” is the best kind of throwback, one that embraces the sensibility of its inspiration while also creating something that feels fresh. By fading the trappings of the genre and focusing on the people, we get a story that is compelling on its own merits rather than relying on the blunt force of CGI. It’s a story about two people confronting something too large to comprehend, yet doggedly continuing their pursuit anyway.

The “Paradox Theatre” framing device is clever and effective, reintroducing itself periodically at opportune times throughout the movie. It works especially well because there is more than a whiff of Serling soul here; this is the sort of tale at which Rod and his “Twilight Zone” crew particularly excelled – one that addresses the small-scale human impact of large-scale strangeness.

It’s frankly stunning to think that this is Andrew Patterson’s first feature; this film looks like veteran work across the board. He beautifully captures the small-town ‘50s aesthetic and seamlessly incorporates the framing device shifts. There’s a confidence in his pacing, a steady hand illustrating his willingness to proceed at precisely the speed the story demands. There are some striking pictures and sequences and tracking shots, as well as some bold internal choices. Shadows, blank screens – Patterson wields them all to the film’s great benefit. This is a major new talent announcing his presence on the scene.

At the center of “The Vast of Night” are Everett and Fay. Those characters are the driving force behind the film; other characters come in and out, but these two are the ones through whose eyes we witness the events of the evening. Horowitz plays Everett with a disarming smoothness, dishing out his dialogue with a rapid-fire patter that evokes the charm of mid-century broadcasting. Meanwhile, McCormick is note-perfect as the smart and curious Fay, lending a wide-eyed and energetic engagement to every scene. They’re great together, particularly during the film’s occasional walk-and-talk stretches. The rest of the cast exists largely to provide background and ambiance, though both Cronauer and Davis deserve mention for their great work in delivering their lengthy tales; Davis in particular impresses, holding us rapt despite being simply a voice over a phone line.

I’ll admit that “The Vast of Night” might not be for everyone; this sort of languid, high-concept sci-fi can be an acquired taste. But if you’re someone who enjoys the Rod Serling school of stylish, idea-driven work, you’re going to REALLY dig this movie.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 June 2020 08:23

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