There’s a classy, old-fashioned patina to the UFO thriller The Vast of Night, one the movie actively cultivates. Its retro title card frames its contained, single-night story as an episode of a fictional Twilight Zone-style anthology show titled Paradox Theater. Its 1950s Space Race setting & surf-guitar soundtrack cues recall a time when speculation about the scope & nature of extraterrestrial life was in the forefront of many people’s minds. Its preference for spoken dialogue over the traditional visual thrills of sci-fi cinema makes its story play out more like radio drama than a movie; the call letters of the radio station where most of its story is staged are even WOTW, a winking reference to War of the Worlds. That reliance on traditional, old-fashioned storytelling puts a lot of pressure on its writing & performances to deliver something memorable, where all-out visual spectacles or over-the-top B-pictures could find much easier cheap thrills elsewhere. It’s shocking how successful the film is, then, considering the risk of that gamble.
Practically told in real time, The Vast of Night is largely a two-hander about a New Mexico radio DJ and his high school-age switchboard operator protégée. They initially share a geeky appreciation for analog audio gear like reel-to-reel tape recorders & broadcast radio towers over a long series of walk & talks. Once they’re both isolated at their respective workstations while the rest of the town gathers at a high school basketball game, however, they share something much more unsettling. Reports of strange sounds heard over the telephone & radio and strange lights spotted erratically traveling across the night sky scare them both into abandoning their posts to investigate a possible UFO invasion – whether extraterrestrial or Communist. Dragging their heavy recording equipment around town to preserve their findings for future broadcast, the unprepared nerdy pair find themselves digging closer & closer to a governmental space-alien-coverup conspiracy that’s just out of reach. With time, they find they may even be stumbling into a direct extraterrestrial discovery themselves.
Because there is such a wealth of UFO conspiracy sci-fi in this same vein dating back at least to 1950s radio plays, magazine-published short stories, and televised anthologies, there isn’t much room left for The Vast of Night to surprise you with what its two gearhead nerds uncover. It arguably doesn’t even attempt to do so. When it comes time for the film to stage its inevitable moment of First Contact, it aims for more quiet majesty than shock or awe. The film chooses a very difficult path in distinguishing itself, relying more on the strength of its performances & written dialogue than its sci-fi chills & scares. It’s more akin to intimate walk & talk dramas like Dogfight, Before Sunrise, or My Dinner with Andre than the sci-fi horror tones you’d usually expect from an alien invasion story template. It may not be able to surprise you with the trajectory of this narrative, but the way it manages to cover a wide range of timeless political topics, an even wider range of external location shooting, and decades of conspiratorial history in what feels like one long conversation between two unknown actors (Jake Horowitz & Sierra McCormick) is impressive all the same. It makes sense that the film earned the Jury Award for the best entry at this year’s Overlook Film Festival, despite not being the best or scariest title on the schedule. It makes a familiar story feel newly exciting purely on the merits of tis execution & craft, which is what genre filmmaking is all about.