Alien invasion stories are nothing knew to the film canon with plenty of history to contend with when attempting to bring new life to the genre. What The Vast of Night, directed by Andrew Patterson, does so well is put us in an atmosphere – 1950s rural New Mexico – where the believability of a possible invasion exists in the authenticity of the environment. Everything from the dialogue, the fashion, the small town camaraderie, switchboard operators, and radio DJs gives this film an underlying truth, no matter it’s fictional origin, to the events happening on screen.
On a night when the whole town of Cayuga is at the local high school basketball game, Fae (Sierra McCormick), a sixteen-year-old switchboard operator, and Everatt (Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ barely out of high school, discover a mysterious frequency on their airwaves. With the whole town occupied at the game, the two play the frequency for anyone listening in. This sends them down a path of dropped calls, stories of missing kids, and government conspiracies reminiscent of The X-Files and The Twilight Zone, the latter of which lends its narrative structure to the events of The Vast of Night.
Where the film avoids the usual alien invader tropes is the scope of the film. Think of it like the precursor to the modern science fiction alien invader blockbuster. There’s always someone in those movies with the story about two locals from a small town going missing in the night. Fae and Everatt are those people, the very beginnings of the urban legends that get passed from generation to generation. But even they talk to their town’s own urban legends, laying the groundwork for the idea invasions have been happening for quite some time.
There isn’t a whole lot of action that takes place. Instead, it’s a dialogue heavy entry to the genre, expertly delivered by McCormick and Horowitz, with strange, intensifying music that gives the film a sense of urgency.
Camera work is where the film truly shines, adding to it the element of spectacle that’s needed to build tension throughout the story. Long tracking shots on seemingly mundane scenes — Fae and Everatt’s walk through town from the basketball court, for instance — make it seem like they’re being followed. At times, it feels very impersonal, but the warm, muted colors counter-balance. Still, the speed at which the tracking shots go at times brings home the idea there’s something in the sky, something that’s been here before.
The Vast of Night is the antithesis to the modern science fiction blockbuster. Take a trip back to the 50s, through the television set, and right into history to the dawn of the space-race, when one night could change the world as we know it, but only for one small town, and a select few people.