Andrew Patterson is a master storyteller. I don’t say that as a premature crowning of a new filmmaker, but as a declaration of the many lessons one can learn from The Vast of Night, Patterson’s debut feature (which he also co-wrote under the pseudonym James Montague – kind of weird, but you do you, Andrew). Set in the 1950s, the story centers around a potential encounter between small-town folk in New Mexico and alien lifeforms.
Our two POV characters are Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz). We descend upon this town on the night of a high school basketball game, an event that has shut the city down like Drake is about to perform in concert (it was a different time). Fay and Everett seem like the only two high schoolers not at the game, as they are more than content to go to work – Everett a radio DJ, and Fay the switchboard operator that handles the calls.
However, while operating the switchboard, she notices some very strange transmissions that keep coming across the line. Her gradual realization and confusion with what’s happening is expertly captured in a long take, a scene where McCormick shines while calling various people to ask if they’ve heard these noises before. Fay communicates to Everett about what is happening, which leads to Everett accepting a call-in to the radio from a stranger that may have answers. As the events play out, the mystery behind it all lends the film an aura of “if aliens were real, and these events actually happened, it’s plausible that we would never find out about this incident.”
But it should be important to note, The Vast of Night is not a feature length episode of Ancient Aliens. The film does not set out to establish some grand mythology, instead it aims to capture a moment in time. There are oblique references to Russian paranoia, and overt references to government cover ups. All the while, the story is framed by characters who are impacted by prejudice, economics, and loss. It’s less about outer space and more about the humans whose social limitations make them ill-equipped to even do anything about an alien invasion.
The film has a budget of only $700,000, yet looks much more expensive. From the excellent camera work, cinematography, framing and blocking, and a tracking shot through the city that belongs on the big screen, Patterson knows how to be economical with the money he does have. In addition, night-time actually looks like night-time, which allows the film’s modest budget to get away with convincing special effects.
The characters are appropriately defined to set the table for their impending destiny. Everett is a realist, Fay an idealist. This is established early on when Fay rattles off all of the possible technological inventions that she hears are in the works, while Everett meets this news with skepticism. The scene this takes place in is an arresting tracking shot where Everett and Fay make their way to the radio station. The dialogue in this scene is going a 1000 MPH, and is so distinctive I legit wondered if the film was adapted from a novel (it, of course, was not).
The inventions and future Fay is describing seems like something out of The Jetsons, which matches the technological optimism of the era. Fay is a nerdy girl whose passions lie in books. Everett is similarly nerdy, but his cool and easy-going demeanor shields him from the typical criticism aimed at nerds. They both have dreams to get out of this small town, but Fay’s options are limited because she doesn’t believe she can afford college. In a sense, her love for science and the hope of tomorrow, a tomorrow we as the modern audience now know is pure fantasy, plays like an escape from the reality and limitations of her world. Rather intentionally or not, I believe the characterizations of Fay and Everett touch on why we enjoy science fiction in the first place.
The movie is really about the hope and desire to see something literally out of this world land on our planet. It’s a fascination with what we haven’t seen but could be possible, which to a large extent is the inspiration of science fiction as a genre. In a way, The Vast of Night isn’t focused on the unknown so much as the aforementioned fervor for the unknown. Fay and Everette are the stand-ins for every person whose imagination gets the best of them, and enjoy the chase for the spectacular as much as the discovery itself.