Amazon's 'The Vast of Night' Is a Hypnotic Sci-Fi Throwback
Queue up this extraterrestrial mystery set in the 1950s.
It was a night like any other. The time: a summer evening in the late 1950s. The place: the American Southwest, where a high school basketball team is about to play against its rivals, and where two students, a radio host and a local switchboard operator discover that things traveling along the radio waves may not be all that they seem. The Vast of Night, the debut film from Andrew Patterson that charmed festival audiences last year, makes its debut on Amazon Prime this weekend and it's a thoroughly immersive time capsule that recreates an era when the space above our heads contained multitudes, rascally Soviets could be hiding around any corner, and the nighttime was full of terrifying possibility.
On a hot summer night in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, high school student Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator working the night shift, and her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a motormouthed, bespectacled evening radio host, prepare themselves for a long few hours while everyone else in town is crammed into the high school gym attending a basketball game. When a mysterious noise over the airwaves interrupts Everett's broadcast, Fay uses her equipment to record it, send it to him, and have him play it over the radio, asking if any listeners had ever heard a sound like that. It's not long before a faceless caller, who gives his name only as Billy (Bruce Davis), claims he heard the sound while he was a soldier in the army, and he and a group of other soldiers were drafted into hiding something that seemed not of this world.
The movie is styled like a Twilight Zone episode -- it even begins with a mocked-up intro to a fake television show called "Paradox Theatre" -- and ends with an ending so chillingly ambiguous that you expect Rod Serling to stroll smirkingly onscreen at any moment. It seems almost like fate that it would be one of the first movies played in drive-in theaters while brick-and mortar cineplexes were closed down for quarantine. It's nostalgic throwback entertainment done right, taking a classic format and playfully transforming it into something all its own. The only overt reference to anything we may recognize is the radio station, whose initials WOTW evoke the title of an H.G. Wells classic.
And it's that frame of reference that the movie is actually drawing from: The Vast of Night is styled less like an old television episode and more like a radio play, harking back to a time when people would still run terrified through the streets as an actor read scenes of Tripod-inflicted destruction over the airwaves. The visual aspects of the film are impressive and moving -- one scene filmed entirely as one long tracking shot as the camera zooms down main streets and through backyards seemingly inches above the ground is a joyful "how did they DO that?" achievement -- but for most of the runtime, you're just listening to people tell stories. Though the movie is on its surface a very fun, creepy thriller, there's something almost soothing about being able to sit back and allow the sounds of people's voices and the tactile ASMR clicks and whirrs of analog machinery to wash over you.
Still, though the movie is decidedly steeped in an era more than half a century prior to ours, the techno-paranoia reads as something recognizably modern: The Cold War with Soviet Russia may be over, but the uncertainty whirling around the ways in which our government and unseen forces use the technology at their disposal feels all too familiar for those of us living in the Information Age. The difference, of course, is that The Vast of Night imagines that there is indeed more traveling around miles above our heads than we've been led to believe, and the answer, however chilling it may be, is also an out-of-this-world wonder.
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