The sky is just the beginning for the promising filmmaker, Andrew Patterson. His debut, “The Vast of Night,” is the kind of inventive, ominous, small-scale science fiction that launches epic discussion. Combing the conspiratorial allure of “Area 51” with rising Cold War tensions of the 1950s, this riff on CBS’s “The Twilight Zone” — known as “Paradox Theatre” in this universe within a television set — is more original than it appears. When an unrecognized sound wave alerts the attentive ears of two high school students from Cayuga, New Mexico, the tech-savvy teens discover that the truth isn’t all that’s out there.
Cayuga is the latest small town in America to burden the consequence of a military cover-up. After fixing the school’s speaker system before its big basketball game, teen radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) assumes the drama is behind him for the night. He’s then accompanied to the campus radio station by classmate Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a fellow tech geek who brings along her tape recorder to test out during their walk.
Their discussion along the way hypothesizes the future of electronics with uncanny accuracy. Self-automated cars and personal phones with video capability are two projected inventions described in a national science magazine, according to Fay. Everett shoots down these potential advancements as inconceivable; his vision limited to the comforting future opportunities afforded to him because of his gender. For Fay, a young girl of the 1950s who cannot afford college, the only viable prospect is expanding her moonlighting gig as a switchboard operator into a full-time city job. James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s dialogue-laden script uses the students’ long exchange to highlight the gender divide of adulthood expectation in this era.
The fateful night separates the pair and then reunites them when a strange broadcast plays at the top of Everett’s evening radio show. Fay first detects it while switching lines at work. When calling a neighboring operator to confirm the sound, the woman on the other end abruptly terminates the call mid-conversation. Unable to reach her again, Fay enlists Everett to help investigate. This leads to a former military serviceman (Bruce Davis) calling into the radio show to share his familiarity with the peculiar noise. He details secret military operations in the desert that exploited people of color for digging labor. Beyond the creepy sound, the minority servicemen were exposed to some form of radioactivity that left them in declining health.
This bombshell news is one of several shocking revelations that take place throughout the night, culminating in a conclusion that unnerves as much as it enthralls—the hyperactive roaming cinematography from M.I. Littin-Menz underscores the omniscient doom looming over the unsuspecting town. Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s music score is restrained but chillingly effective, rising in anxiety when innocuous events reveal themselves to be states of emergency. Finally, the early procedural elements of the story run a tad slow. This might explain why the zippy dialogue between Everett and Fay comes off rehearsed and over-polished. Some viewers will inevitably feel shortchanged when the credits arrive before the real action takes flight.
As a first feature, Andrew Patterson provides the right amount of style and foresight into what makes a compelling science fiction narrative. Let’s hope his career isn’t exclusively tethered to large franchises moving forward. This Amazon original specializes in the burgeoning motivations of small-town youngsters, who excitedly run into the vast unknown since the potential war and certain sexism await their adult lives. While the plunge into darkness could go even deeper, this low-fi thriller uses youth intellect as its primary guiding light.
“The Vast of Night” is distributed by Amazon Studios and is available on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, May 29, 2020.