First-contact movies are usually distilled into two categories: profound beauty or utter terror. What makes The Vast of Night — the debut feature from writer/director Andrew Patterson — so distinct is how it manages to simultaneously tap into both feelings of wonder and fear over the course of less than 90 minutes and with a budget of under $1 million.
The film takes place in 1950s New Mexico and focuses on a teenage switchboard operator named Fay (Asheville native Sierra McCormick) and her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz), a disc jockey for the small town’s radio station. On one fateful night, they both discover a strange radio frequency that may be of extraterrestrial origin.
It’s a testament to Patterson’s script that this familiar story is able to avoid so many genre clichés. Rather than showing us any sci-fi tech, the majority of the movie is focused on our two human protagonists (wonderfully portrayed by the young actors), and it’s their dynamic that carries the movie along right from the start. Their dialogue is snappy and genuine — and, thanks to their rapport, I knew I was going to be a fan of this film after the first few minutes.
Patterson’s filmmaking is nothing to scoff at, either. With few locations and minimal use of special effects, The Vast of Night is refreshingly economical in a time where visual excess seems to be the norm for genre movies. However, the filmmaker is still able to provide some directorial flourishes that are all the more impressive knowing how little he had to work with.
There are gorgeous tracking shots early on, very strong Spielberg-esque lighting and an uncut, 10-minute dialogue sequence focusing solely on McCormick’s face that’s understated but makes the scene incredibly engaging. Patterson also makes the choice to frame the story as if it’s an episode of some sort of “Twilight Zone” rip-off, complete with faux Rod Serling narration. It’s a visually interesting gimmick that’s used sparingly, so I never got sick of it.
Patterson has crafted a very talky science fiction movie that somehow manages to be just as awe-inspiring and frightening — if not more so — than any big-budget alien invasion flick. It’s a nostalgic love letter to an iconic time in American culture, yet it never gets bogged down in sentimentality or romanticizing its past. This slow-burn sci-fi story is an incredible directorial debut and features committed performances, wonderful dialogue and a great score — and it’s my favorite film of 2020 thus far.
Available to stream via Amazon Prime Video