The whole world can change in the time it takes to play a high school basketball game. That’s exactly what happens in The Vast of Night, the feature debut of director Andrew Patterson, which blends elements of The Twilight Zone and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds in a taut, captivating alien invasion film told in real-time.
Set during the 1950s in a small New Mexico town, a young radio DJ named Everett (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator named Faye (Sierra McCormick) walk around town testing out Faye’s new tape recorder. Most of the town is watching the high school basketball game. As the night progresses, Faye and Everett’s knowledge of tape recorders and recordings becomes increasingly significant when a strange noise begins appearing all over town, including as distortions on Faye’s phone lines and on Everett’s radio station (WOTW, of course).
Everett and Faye team up to figure the origin of the mysterious sound. At this point in the film, Patterson is a maestro with the camera. From long, slow, steady tracking shots following Everett and Faye around, to locked-off, perfectly still single takes of long monologues, the camerawork will have you on the edge of your seat. One scene in particular — a single tracking shot that goes on for several minutes as the camera races all over town, in and out of buildings — feels almost impossible. And yet it, like the rest of the film’s dynamic camera work, drives the tension of the film. Something is out there. What could it be? What does it want?
As Everett and Faye, Horowitz and McCormick melt into their ‘50s personas, desperately running around town, trying to figure out what’s causing this damn sound. As they go from character to character and setting to setting, ramping up excitement, we never feel a disconnect form their distinct personalities or the wide-eyed wonder of the era.
Interestingly, though the film has a very realistic, grounded look and feel, at every turn Patterson fights against that and reminds us we’re watching a movie. The most jarring way he does this is by continually shifting to a square aspect ratio and distorting the visuals, making it feel like we’re watching this story unfold on an old TV like it’s some grand, 90-minute episode of The Twilight Zone.
The combined realism and fantasy of the filmmaking makes it seem like anything is possible in The Vast of Night. Horowitz and McCormick could be playing Everett and Faye in this movie or they could be playing actors playing characters named Everett and Faye on a TV show. We just don’t know. Nor does it matter.
What matters is the mystery. The crazy possibilities. For a while, the characters think the sound is coming from the Russians, which makes sense within the time period. But as new information is uncovered and more secrets unveiled, it becomes pretty clear that either everyone walking around this quiet town is crazy or there’s something otherworldly in the sky.
Patterson’s filmmaking prowess is definitely the main attraction in The Vast of Night, but his broad ideas end up being a little bit stifled by his setting. With the old cars, switchboards, small town setting, and the ticking clock of that basketball game — the result is a film bursting at the seams with ideas and details that very nearly, but don’t quite, reach their potential.
There’s a payoff to be sure, but because that payoff is basically what you’re expecting based on everything you’ve seen so far, it leaves the film feeling just a tiny bit underwhelming. But just a bit. The Vast of Night is so beautiful and engaging, it makes us want more. But it is pretty incredible as is and makes us yearn to see what Patterson will do next.
The Vast of Night recently played Fantastic Fest 2019 and Amazon Studios bought the rights to the film. A 2020 release date is expected.