‘The Vast of Night’ Wondrously Evokes an Otherworldly Mystery of Strange Lights and Sounds

The idea of the 1950s and flying saucers recalls pulp magazines or comic books, early sci-fi movies and the dawn of our urban legends about UFOs. “The Vast of Night” director Andrew Patterson lightly grabs some of these cherished pop culture elements and uses them to make something altogether fresh and enveloping. Patterson takes the material seriously, understanding that stories of this kind are almost metaphors for our desire to have experiences beyond the ordinary.

Like other American stories involving strange happenings in the night sky, this one takes place in a rural New Mexico town in the late 1950s. As the local high school begins holding a big basketball game, two teenagers leave to wander the town with a recorder. They are Everett (Jake Horowitz), a local DJ with a rock ‘n’ roll twang to his accent, and Fay (Sierra McCormick) a switchboard operator who wants to learn the ways of radio broadcasting. As the two walk around the shadowy corners of the small town for interviews from locals lounging in their cars or out on late night strolls, a budding friendship builds. Later, while operating the switchboard, Fay tunes in to Everett’s show but a strange sound begins to interfere with the broadcast. Then phone calls come in of people seeing strange lights in the sky. Everett and Fay go on a hunt for these mysterious lights and broadcast the sound into the evening airwaves, this leads to new witnesses with bizarre and ominous stories to share.

“The Vast of Night” is a film that defines atmosphere. It is never slow however. Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz, who lensed the notable Chilean film “Machuca,” keeps the camera fluid as if we are gliding through the town. Long shots will track from Everett’s compact radio station out into darkened, dusty streets with the hint of a light nearby. While it is a beautifully framed movie, it always feels palpable and real. Patterson is not shooting a popcorn fantasy, but a work more in line with shows like “The X-Files,” or underrated films like “Communion,” where any otherworldly entities are constantly kept hidden. Tension comes from sensing something might be out there. Locals run into the radio station or switchboard office announcing they have seen something in the sky, a mysterious man calls Everett’s show and reports that he was once at a military base where he witnessed something strange, an older woman sits alone in her home, describing a child who disappeared years ago, and a train whose inhabitants vanished. But it all hangs in the air like weird stories people tell you but you have no way of verifying, yet suspect it could be true. Patterson even pays homage to the old sci-fi shows of the era, opening on a ‘50s TV screen with the film’s title, as if we were about to watch an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

Patterson’s film works so well because its ambiance of hidden secrets combines with the meticulous details of a serious period piece. The screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger feels as if it is a leftover from the era, like a script someone left in some studio vault that only now has been uncovered. Dialogue rings true to small town American life where everyone knows each other and the entire town feels homely. Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick are a wonderful pair. He has the “cool” demeanor of a rock DJ with the spirit of a small town boy, and McCormick has an independent spirit and enthusiasm that pulls Evertett in. Patterson lets them talk and think, share and open up. These are not two cardboard heroes chasing after aliens, but regular people undergoing an extreme experience. Sure there are odd lights in the sky tonight, but Fay has to take care of her baby sister alone and is thinking of finding switchboard work in a bigger city. Everett is so talented everyone wonders why he chooses to stay in what amounts to a backwater.

As Everett and Fay get closer to finding answers to the lights and strange sounds flowing into the airwaves of their small corner of the world, “The Vast of Night” becomes more and more of a cinematic reverie. The music by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer is low key but also spacey, adding to the movie’s dreamlike texture. Patterson shoots the closing chapters with the elegance of a sci-fi poetry, filming ideas we have seen in other movies but stripped of the usual, over the top exuberance. The result is a genuine sense of wonder.

So many films go for easily recyclable formulas. “The Vast of Night” asks one of the most often repeated questions in film and pop literature: Are we alone? But it does not mock the idea or use it for popcorn escape. Some may scoff, but Patterson has made a work exhilarating in its creativity and depth, tapping into the subtext of why UFO culture seems to reach into something deeper in our collective psyche. Even if we don’t necessarily believe, we wonder. Within the new batch of films premiering via streaming in this season of viruses and peering into an unknown future, “The Vast of Night” appears like a work of art that may be discovered like a strange, crackling transmission in the night air. 

The Vast of Night” premieres May 29 on Amazon Prime Video.