Andrew Patterson’s soaringly creative, science-fiction mindbender isn’t limited by its 17-day shooting schedule and a micro budget the filmmaker ponied up himself. What makes it one of the best (and most unclassifiable) movies of the year is the hypnotic way it keeps re-inventing itself from scene to scene. As the first-time director told Filmmaker magazine: “We had the first few words — ‘1950’s New Mexico-set sci-fi thriller’ — and then we could stuff that sausage casing with a lot of things nobody expects to find there.”
That Patterson and his collaborators did. Filmed in Texas but set in New Mexico for its famed history of paranormal sightings, The Vast of Night (available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday) brims over with surprises. The director, working from a terrific, twisty script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, is clearly jazzed by such 1950’s genre classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But the heart of the film isn’t in its shout-outs. Homages to past sci-fi movies or not, the movie’s take on the material feels startlingly original.
Things begin innocently enough at a high school basketball game with the crowd still cheering as local radio personality Everett “The Maverick” Sloane (Jake Horowitz) and adoring student fan Fay (Sierra McCormick) — in period-ready ponytail and cat-eye glasses — head off to their nighttime gigs. He’s a chainsmoking DJ and she’s a science geek who works the night shift in the town of Cayuga, pop: 492. We eavesdrop as the pair, seen mostly from behind, talk animatedly like Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. It’s only when they settle into their jobs that both notice something is off. A strange frequency invades the radio signals and telephone calls are cutting out. Outside we hear a voice say, “There’s something in the sky.”
Everett and Fay, tech nerds before anyone used the term, set out to investigate as cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz follows in their wake. The movie ingeniously frames their activities as an episode of a fictional TV show called “Paradox Theater,” which lacks only Rod Serling as the narrator who intones: “You are entering a realm between clandestine and forgotten.” Even better, Patterson devotes a mesmerizing 10 minutes to watching Fay manage her switchboard as her sense of unease grows (McCormick pulls off the acting challenge with appealing verve). There’s a soon-to-be famous sequence that rivals the opening tracking shot in Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil, in which the camera glides through the town, in and out of windows and doors and down sinister corners. Everett, played by Horowitz with just the right note of bluff confidence, puts the signal out on the airwaves in the hope that someone will recognize it.
Someone does. The screen goes dark as we listen to an audio transmission from Billy (Bruce Davis), a disabled African-American vet who was part of a covert UFO military operation that exposed its racism and sexism by employing persons of color and women —all the better to achieve plausible deniability if its secrets were breached. There is also a call from Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), a senior who says that the mystery transmission goes back further than anyone first thought. Much, much further.
An Oklahoman who got his start shooting local commercials and promos for his hometown basketball team (the Oklahoma City Thunder), Patterson has a visual flair that will take him far. And when he works his magic to the hypnotic strains of the score by Jared Bulmer and Erick Alexander, you can feel yourself being swept away by a young filmmaker full of promise. His tale of Cold War paranoia speaks to deep fears we’re all experiencing in these uncertain times.