Radio, television, and cinema all cleverly coalesce in The Vast of Night, a 1950s-set science-fiction film about a mysterious audio signal that reverberates through a small New Mexico town one strange night.
In the opening shot, the camera moves in on a retro TV set, its rounded shape reminiscent of Gort’s helmet in The Day the Earth Stood Still. On the screen is playing the latest episode of Paradox Theater, entitled “The Vast of Night.” The camera moves into the TV, briefly taking on its black-and-white flicker before settling into a sepia tone as the image expands to fill the entire screen. From this point on, we’re in the show.
Directed by Andrew Patterson, making his feature debut, The Vast of Night then indulges in a series of elaborate, single-take sequences. These follow a local disc jockey named Everett (Jake Horowitz) as he glad-hands his way through the high-school gym before a big basketball game, shares radio tips with a high-schooler named Fay (Sierra McCormick), who just bought her own tape recorder, and walks with her to her night shift as the town’s switchboard operator. They’re something of an odd couple—the movie never quite settles on the exact nature of their relationship—but they become the focal point of the film. Fay receives a few distress calls at the switchboard, including one with the strange signal, and Everett plays it on the air hoping to get some answers.
There are other, showy single-take sequences in the film—including one that travels from the switchboard office all the way to the radio station. Presumably they’re meant to balance the two, long, static monologues we also get: one from a caller to Everett’s radio show (the camera stays on Everett’s face as we listen to the voice) and the other from an elderly shut-in whom Fay and Everett visit (the camera barely leaves her face as she tells her story). Both tales provide evidence that the signal may be extra-terrestrial. These monologues may not entirely justify their length, but they do recall the sound design and pacing of old-fashioned radio dramas (Patterson even lets the screen go black at certain points to completely remove the visual element).
All of this makes The Vast of Night more interesting as a formal experiment than a solid, sci-fi story. (The Spielbergian climax in particular is underwhelming.) It’s less Close Encounters of the Third Kind and more like a special episode of The Twilight Zone, starring The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully. Which is to say, pretty fun.