The vintage-styled ‘The Vast of Night’ will delight sci-fi fans with its ‘Twilight Zone’ homage.
Kernel Rating: 3.5 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 89 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 12+. This sci-fi film follows a ‘Twilight Zone’ format, and is styled as an episode of a TV show. Inside that frame, two teenagers investigate a strange audio frequency that they have been hearing throughout town, and in doing so, hear spooky stories about extraterrestrial life, a government coverup, people getting sick after exposure to mysterious classified military material, and missing people. None of this is gory or explicit, but it is a little spooky and might be too much for younger viewers, including characters falling into a trance and an ending that suggests kidnap. Some flirting between teenagers; a married couple fights; the word “Indian” is used to describe Native American characters; and some language, including one use of the f-word.
By Roxana Hadadi
A treat for fans of vintage sci-fi, “The Vast of Night” is a hypnotizing, slowly unfurling foray into a mysterious small town, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and the appearance of curious circumstances unite everyone in their desire to discover more. If you can see this one in a reopened drive-in theater in Maryland, do so; with its midnight-blue tones and long tracking shots, “The Vast of Night” would benefit from as large a screen as possible.
Stylized as an episode of “Paradox Theater,” a television show similar to “The Twilight Zone” or even standalone episodes of “The X-Files,” “The Vast of Night” is set in the small town of New Mexico in the 1950s. In Cayuga, New Mexico, everybody knows everybody, and everything is singular—one store, one radio station, one high school. That collective familiarity allows for a certain kind of conversational shorthand, and for experiences that are shared townwide. Everyone gathers at the high school Friday night for varsity basketball games. Everyone listens to the same radio shows. And everyone knows teenagers Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz), the former of whom works as a switchboard operator in town—recognizing everyone’s voices, and who converses with whom most frequently—and the latter of whom has a popular radio show and aspires to be a professional DJ. “Everett from the radio” is how he’s described, and it clearly brings him some joy.
There is a light flirtation between the pair: He teases her about being “some big science girl,” encouraging her to share plots and narratives from various sci-fi novels she’s recently read—about self-driving cars and speed trains. Meanwhile, she comments on his DJ style, on the voice he uses on air that is so different from his own speaking voice. But there is fundamentally a deep affection between them, and they’re bound further together when they discover a strange audio frequency. What is emitting the frequency? There are mysterious lights seen around town—where are they coming from? What could be happening in Cayuga, and how are Fay and Everett tied up within it?
As “The Vast of Night” unfolds practically in real time, we are alongside Fay and Everett as they travel from the high school to the switchboard and the radio station, then listen together to a man who calls into the radio station to talk about his history in the military and his experience with possible extraterrestrial material, then join together again to speak with a woman who has her own strange story about another weird night in Cayuga, then divide up again. The pacing is brisk but the movie does enough to develop both Fay and Everett separately and together, and increasingly ratchets up the tension so we steadily move from Fay asking a panicked caller, “Ma’am, please, is this an emergency?” to Everett observing that the inexplicable radio frequency is “good radio” to the two of them finally realizing that this mystery might in fact be dangerous.
The central idea is a captivating one, and the film has a few impressive technical flourishes, like a scene where we move alongside a mysterious force flying through town. But “The Vast of Night” does demand your patience, in particular as Fay and Everett listen to the veteran caller recount his experience being involved in a potential government coverup. His tale stretches on a bit too long, and your attention might wander. And because the film gives you a few various possibilities for what is happening in “The Vast of Night,” there is some slight murkiness toward the end, which feels rushed compared with the first 40 or so minutes.
Still, “The Vast of Night” mostly entertains, and its mixture of vintage aesthetics and spooky subject matter feels like the beginning of the summer movie season. For sci-fi fans, its spin on the “Twilight Zone” formula works.
“The Vast of Night” is streaming on Amazon Prime and is playing at select drive-in theaters around the U.S.