This witty and audacious sci-fi mystery arrives like a persistent and unexplained radar-bleep from the heavens: low-budget, high-concept. First-time director Andrew Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W Sanger have created something like a movie pastiche or a filmic chamber opera – one that will sometimes spend ages in cramped interior locations while people give long speeches to each other, and sometimes whoosh around outside, with enjoyable, show-offy unbroken tracking shots that take us through dark streets, up to a high school and through its crowded gymnasium.
It’s set in the 1950s in the fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico – no one actually says the word “Roswell” – where people are coming to see a high-school basketball match. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is the smart-alec local DJ who is putting out his nightly show at the same time, but arranging for the basketball commentary to be tape-recorded so he can transmit it the next day: locals just love to hear their kids’ names on the air. His friend Fay (Sierra McCormick) is the telephone exchange operator, wearing those Larson-cartoon cat-eye glasses, who alerts him to some very strange sounds echoing and crackling through the ether, playing havoc with her phone calls. She records it on her own reel-to-reel device and Everett puts it on the air, asking if any listener can identify it. The result takes Everett and Fay to a terrible situation on an exposed hillside, gazing up into what the title archaically calls the “vast of night” – which contains more than they thought.
Partly, it’s an extremely accomplished homage to The Twilight Zone, and to author Richard Matheson, the Twilight Zone veteran and sci-fi master idolised by Spielberg. We begin by appearing to watch a TV series called Paradox Theater on an old set, then we get closer and closer to the fuzzy black-and-white screen – and finally we’re inside. But using time-travel, this Twilight Zone-type show appears to have hired Aaron Sorkin as its scriptwriter, at first anyway, as the opening 15 minutes is crammed with the most dizzying walk-and-talk dialogue imaginable (no 1950s TV drama would use it) as Everett swaggers through the school gym, bickering, backtalking and mischievously confiscating some kid’s trombone for the sheer hell of it. It’s a real rush.
Everett is the motormouth and local media celebrity in the days when these things were not commonplace: like the real-life Wolfman Jack in George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). It is Everett who is to discover that the US military is specifically using African American soldiers to work on their top-secret installation because they know that no one would believe these soldiers if they chose to tell their story. Racism would serve the cause of secrecy and sexism would also do its job: an elderly woman whose child was abducted knew that any investigation would only be an investigation of her.
The Vast of Night is enjoyable because it returns us to an intriguing question: if late-50s America was so buttoned-up, conservative and hidebound, how did it give birth to The Twilight Zone and other science-fictions – so fiercely imaginative, anarchic, satirical, and bolder than the navel-gazing of literary fiction and highbrow art? Aliens were arguably an expression of the anti-Soviet red scare, of course, an expression made easier in the age of Sputnik (although there’s a pointed exchange in this film about the events happening before Sputnik).
Aliens were also a dramatisation of America’s fear and excitement at the burgeoning power of media and mass communication: Everett and Fay have an excitable conversation about new advances in driverless cars, handheld TV screens and mobile phones, extraordinary messages from the future – and radio constitutes the growth of what William Gibson called cyberspace. Orson Welles had cheekily pranked America with his war of the worlds, but maybe the US wanted to be pranked. Or more than that: they wanted to know, or at least believe, because we all do, we want to make a choice between the two awful possibilities famously proposed by Arthur C Clarke: whether to assume that we are alone in the universe, or that we aren’t.
It isn’t quite perfect: the mile-a-minute dialogue style, which was so exciting at first, suddenly slows up – and there are one or two contrived plot turns that require a local library to be burgled and some extremely obscure items discovered and taken in the space of around five minutes. Yet with great style and technical bravura, the film takes us on a fairground ride, running on rails right up to the final question: what if aliens aren’t a metaphor? Patterson gives us a night sky full of scary signs and portents.
• The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime.
Source: The Guardian