“The Vast of Night” is barely a minute in when it first pulls a “Gotcha!”
“You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten,” says a Rod Serling-like narrator through an old black-and-white TV. “You are entering ‘Paradox Theater.’ ”
You’re all set for a cute “Twilight Zone” parody, a Talky Tina doll and perhaps a “To Serve Man” cookbook, but what unravels instead is a smart, back-to-basics science-fiction film that’s both bold and retro.
In 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico, a teen radio DJ and a telephone operator team up to get to the bottom of an unusual noise buzzing through their speakers. Being that this is New Mexico circa 1947 (does Roswell ring a bell?), we can safely assume it’s not a wiring problem.
The DJ is Everett (Jake Horowitz), a fast-talking loner who’s most comfortable with a mike, and the switchboard operator is Fay (Sierra McCormick), a naive science lover. While the rest of the tiny town is at the high school basketball game, the scrappy pair race to solve the mystery.
The duo replays the sound during Everett’s 7 p.m. show on WOTW (a sly nod to “War of the Worlds”) and listeners relay riveting stories of coming in contact with the unexplainable. The telephone company starts getting bombarded with calls from locals reporting seeing swirling lights in the sky.
The film, which started out at the Slamdance Festival, is a simple, savvy piece of filmmaking that tells more than it shows. The radio interviews, made believable by the enthusiastic Horowitz, are tense and exciting even though we don’t see the speaker’s face. Especially the breathy Bruce Davis making a near-death confession.
Although there are barely four major set pieces in the movie, and very few noticeable special effects, director Andrew Patterson creates tension between long shots through the downtown and quick cuts in claustrophobic rooms. It always feels as though a monster is lurking around the corner.
“The Vast of Night” goes cold-turkey on most of the elements that have come to define science-fiction in recent years. There are no explosions, car chases, superheroes, hot aliens or lack of self-respect here. Instead, it boldly goes where great sci-fi used to go.