The Vast of Night (2019)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

Ejecta (2015)

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I’ll be the first to admit to having a list of certain topics & genres that always lure me in, no matter what the apparent quality of the individual pictures may be. If a film has something to do with one of my pet obsessions, such as pop music, witchcraft, pro wrestling, etc. I’m highly likely to tune in no matter what. One of the absolute easiest ways to get my butt in a theater seat, for instance, is to slap a sci-fi tag on a film. Just this year alone I’ve been burned by the likes of Jupiter Ascending, Alien Outpost, and The Lazarus Effect all because they promised sci-fi content & I couldn’t resist.

And now you can go ahead & Ejecta to the list of 2015’s shoddiest sci-fi movies that hold promise solely in the potential of their genre, delivering nothing of interest once they get you sitting in front of the screen. Getting pulled in this way has also introduced me to some great pictures that’ll stick with me for a long time coming, such as Spring, Ex Machina, and Predestination, but every now & then a slog like Ejecta will make me question whether or not those rewards are worth the pained efforts required to find the gems among the trash. The film declares its shitty quality early, opening with an on-screen blog post that reads “Tonight the universe is no larger than my head. It’s time to make room for visitors,” & following that empty sentiment with an angsty prologue about how “We’re all so stupid” (meaning we Earthlings) and so on & so forth. Well, I did continue watch Ejecta after the one minute mark, so I guess that last part is actually fairly accurate.

A found footage sci-fi horror cheapie with a framing device in which one interview flashbacks to a second, earlier interview, Ejecta is a thoroughly frustrating exercise in weak storytelling. While being interrogated by some government suits about a possible encounter with “advanced life forms”, our protagonist Bill tells his side of the story by flashing back to the day before, when he was interviewed for a documentary called Extraterrestrial Territory: Things Beyond Our Atmosphere, an exposé only the most dedicated Coast to Coast AM fans could love. As the government bullies start torturing Bill with some Disturbing Behavior-esque headgear in order to coax more information out of him, it’s all too easy to sympathize with the tormentors more than the victim. Tell us what happened, Bill! Show us some aliens already! Bill himself, played by an emaciated Julian Richings (who was much more fun playing villain in the recent Cabbage Patch horror flick Patch Town), is easily the most alien thing we’re shown onscreen for much of the film’s run time. Tormented by some kind of Freddy Krueger-like extraterrestrial invasion that occupies his mind instead of a physical space, Bill only allows himself several hours of sleep every few days or so & he totally looks it.

A competent, strange-looking lead actor can hardly support a feature film on its own, though. As much as Ejecta reaches for every out-there sci-fi idea it can think of (including alien autopsies, UFO crashes, and body snatching), watching a freaked out Julian Richings dispense one piece of info at a time without actually showing us any of the action (outside of a very brief shot of a Humanoids from the Deep-type alien filmed through wooden slats) just doesn’t cut it. The movie promises all & delivers nothing. It’s genuinely hard to believe that it only ran for 82 minutes, adding a meta layer of audience-participatory time travel to an otherwise mundane experience that I swear dragged on for several hours. It’s a terrible film & trying to piece together details of it now makes me feel just as ragged & tortured as Bill looked trying to remember his extraterrestrial experience onscreen. It’s not a sensation that I can recommend.

-Brandon Ledet

Strange Invaders (1983)

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There’s nothing misleading about the title of Strange Invaders. Much like the recently-mentioned Invaders from Mars, the 80s sci-fi cheapie attempts to profess its love for 50s alien schlock sensibilities while updating them for a modern audience, but unfortunately the results are much less successful here than they are in the Tobe Hooper film. There are plenty of interesting ideas at work in Strange Invaders & enough grotesque practical effects to fill a decent YouTube highlight reel, but getting through the painfully paced 90 min runtime is a lot less fun than it should be. This is highly dispiriting, considering that the filmed was partially penned by a young Bill Condon, who I have a certain affection for, but it still remains true.

Strange Invaders‘ plot involves a bland everyman searching for his missing ex-wife in a ghost town populated by some gross-ass aliens who can transform human beings into floating balls of energy merely by zapping them with their fingertip lightning. Oh yeah, and this town, which was, officially-speaking, “destroyed by a tornado”, is temporally trapped in the 1950s. And the government totally knows about it. And the aliens can (and do) mate with the human populace to create human-alien hybrids. And so on & so forth. You’d think that with as much of a narratively stacked deck that Strange Invaders has to play with it’d be a breezily entertaining picture, but the truth is that its sublime moments of occasional alien invasion weirdness are mere respites from a slog of a movie that more of often than not bores its audience to tears.

The most significantly enjoyable aspect of Strange Invaders is its fleeting moments of body horror. Aliens ripping off their human disguises, spewing green blood from bulletholes, and sucking the life out of human victims to add to their precious orb collection are the sole bright moments in an desperately dull film, probably all better experienced as .gifs than as complete scenes. You get a real sense here that Bill Condon has a love for dated genre films, a love best put to use in his breakout film Gods & Monsters, but that influence just makes Strange Invaders al the more frustrating. You can feel a better movie dying to be cut loose from the bland, pooly-paced orb that contains it, trapped in time decades later, still waiting to be rescued in the editing room.

-Brandon Ledet