In Cayuga, New Mexico – population 492 – life is predictable. Everyone knows everyone and nothing ever happens… until one remarkable day.
In The Vast of Night, this sleepy 1950s town is suddenly electrified with energy after a potential UFO sighting. Directed by Andrew Patterson, this science-fiction film taps into New Mexico’s long lore of connections with extraterrestrial life, and was met with rave reviews after its premiere at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival and the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
The Vast of Night takes the ever familiar alien genre and makes it extraordinary through its unique take — Cayuga is concurrently ordinary and otherworldly. The lead characters seem like typical people living typical lives: Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a high school student who works as a switchboard operator, while Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a late-night DJ at an AM radio station. Yet, both have an interest in the uncanny and unexplained. Fay, in particular, is obsessed with urban legends and extraordinary tales, so when she witnesses strange and staticky transmissions coming through the switchboard, she and Everett are the perfect sleuths to investigate the eeriness invading their town.
“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten…”
At times, the film adheres to a frame narrative, presenting itself as a flickering black-and-white television episode of Paradox Theater, an obvious riff on The Twilight Zone, and this homage allows the film to feel self-aware about its genre predecessors without feeling contrived. The film revels in the potential of technology, and using every dollar of its low-budget perfectly, is a technological marvel itself. Fay makes call after call in a riveting unbroken ten-minute sequence at the switchboard, and the cinematography by M.I. Littin-Menz deploys drone shots to move fluidly through the shadows and loom over the town like an alien ship.
The sharp screenplay (or “teleplay” as it is credited), written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, immediately immerses us into blisteringly paced small-town gossip, then offsets these rapid exchanges with long and lyrical monologues. The production design and dialogue evocatively capture the mid-1950s setting, being realistic without being hokey. Some of the characters look like archetypal 1950s figurines, but they also feel like real people.
Despite having a bit of a B-movie plot, The Vast of Night has an overarching theatrical quality. Even with its framing as a television episode, it often feels like it could be a radio drama — occasionally, the characters become enshrouded in shadow or the screen cuts to black, leaving us to listen to voices in the void, hanging on their every word.
As The Vast of Night marvels at the power of technology to enable exceptional communication and travel, it also explores themes of disconnection and feeling lost in space. Both Everett and Fay dream of getting out of Cayuga — Everett to the west coast and Fay to anywhere but her small town. Their friendship is frequently met with crossed wires and struggles to communicate their feelings, but they are united on their quest to broadcast the spooky sound on the radio in an attempt to find someone who might be able to help them determine its source.
Billy, a black veteran, calls into Everett’s show to explain a strange sickness he experienced after time in the desert, which he thinks is connected to the noise. He never came forward about his illness for fear of not being believed because of his race, saying “No one listens to us,” in a moment of surprising poignancy. These feelings of invisibility and isolation are echoed by an elderly woman named Mabel Blanche who thinks she knows the extraterrestrial source of the sound. She speculates, “I think they like people alone,” but ironically, it is the unexplained alien phenomena that ultimately brings people together.
Through The Vast of Night, Patterson takes a simple premise and molds it into a stylish and startling debut that warrants repeat viewing — the entire cast and crew behind this film are certainly ones to watch. This film is steeped in nostalgia and eerie Americana, but it transcends the familiarity of genre tropes to create a tale humming with distinct energy. As The Vast of Night chases what is beyond our comprehension, ordinary people are transformed not only by their encounters with the unexplained, but with each other.