sat 13/04/2024

The Vast of Night review - perfectly paranoid | reviews, news & interviews

The Vast of Night review - perfectly paranoid

The Vast of Night review - perfectly paranoid

Teenage sleuths track visitors from afar in an impeccable low-budget indie

Is there anybody out there?: Sierra McCormick in 'The Vast of Night'.Amazon

The Vast of Night’s premise scarcely guarantees originality.

Non-science-fiction buffs scoping Amazon’s film listings will probably move on quickly when they learn it’s about two late-'50s teenagers discovering that an alien space craft is hovering over their rural New Mexico burg. But Andrew Patterson’s sparkling directorial debut is an object lesson in how to revitalize an over-familiar narrative with fresh-seeming characters, visual daring, ladles of wit, and atmosphere to burn.

Patterson uses the tropes of the extra-terrestrial visitation scenario to investigate Eisenhower-era paranoia, small-town rituals, ingrained racism, maternal loss, female intellect, and, not least, a super-smart girl's formative crush on an uncomprehending boy. It’s likely these ideas inspired screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger more than the thought of introducing their dynamic duo – casual friends Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz, pictured below) – to the crew of a Close Encounters of the Third Kind-ish mother ship.

The micro-budgeted indie's crucial antecedent is Rod Serling’s CBS anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64), which did more than any other TV show or film to relate post-World War II and Space Age anxieties to individual experience; the 1960 episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street may have exerted particular influence on the movie’s suggestion that what Americans should fear most is not aliens – whether Little Green Men or sophisticated blobs like those in Arrival (2016) – but the Pentagon keeping the public in the dark. (Character actor Everett Sloane, incidentally, appeared in both the 1955 TV and 1956 film versions of the Serling-scripted Patterns, as well as a first-season Twilight Zone episode.)

Alternating between colour and black and white, The Vast of Night unfolds as an episode of a Twilight Zone-like show called Paradox Theater, the fiction-within-a-fiction a distancing device that helps the big themes go down easily. Yet Everett and Fay are real enough: he’s an extroverted, irritable, highly-strung recording wiz who wears glasses and has a radio DJ gig; she’s an earnest, breathless, quick-thinking science nerd of 16 who wears glasses and works an evening shift as a telephone operator. She has feelings for him that she’s too shy to admit; he likes her but is perplexed by his tendency to hurt girls' feelings – as he eventually confesses in an aside.

A protracted decoy opening that sends Everett to Cayuga City’s stadium – where about 485 of the 492 townsfolk have gathered for the first game of the high-school basketball season – delay Fay’s emergence as the winning pony-tailed protagonist. Her and Everett’s affinity becomes clear as a. bravura 10-minute sequence follows him walking her to the telephone exchange while she enthuses about such incredible future inventions as automatic cars, electric roads, a GPS, and a handy personal communications device Fay thinks far-fetched. Shortly afteward, cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz’s camera takes off on its own for a breathtaking point-of-view shot – achieved mostly with a go-cart – that encompasses the entire town: it’s so small you can see why cautious aliens might check it out, especially when the streets are deserted.

As Fay plugs in phone calls, disruptions occur: some lines don’t work, staticky noises are heard, a woman reports a large object in the sky. In his studio at WOTW ("War of the Worlds"?), Everett speaks to a black listener called Billy (voiced by Bruce Davis), who, unseen and unused to being heard, recalls when he was a soldier forced to participate in a sinister classified mission that has bearing on whatever’s approaching Cayuga City from above. Everett enlists Fay on a mission of his own, and when he picks her up in his car after she’s completed it, he says he suspects the Soviets are behind the weird goings-on. In an especially chilling sequence, an elderly woman (Gail Cronauer), who's long grieved for her missing son, tells Fay and Everett about a train that was liberated of its passengers not by marauding Apaches but by aliens, and of a subsequent abduction – but she may be reimagining her past. When the kids rush to another encounter, Fay adds to their number, unconsciously ensuring they’ll present themselves as a family unit.

The Vast of Night has a packed canvas. A late post-Spielbergian entry, it invokes the Old West; the 1947 UFO incident in Roswell, New Mexico; Cold War terrors expressed in works as diverse as Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) and Errol Morris’s Wormwood (2017); and delicately addresses the inchoate emotional needs of its young heroine and hero (subtly played by McCormick and Horowitz). Yet it feels timeless. One of the ravaged American cinema’s best offerings of 2020 so far, it’s a putative cult classic.

What Americans should fear most is not aliens but the Pentagon keeping the public in the dark


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters