Amazon's 'Vast of Night' a smart, moody blast from the past of space films
This impressively confident, nuanced first feature from Oklahoma City native Andrew Patterson takes place during the '50s in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico, but it may as well be Scaresville in the state of Paranoia.
"There's something in the sky," people say.
We hear that ominous sentence several times in "The Vast of Night," a charming, miniscule-budgeted, near-terrific science-fiction mystery that values characters over visual effects, and embraces atmosphere over plot.
Patterson, operating from a chatty, sci-fi allusion-heavy screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, sets the tone for his movie by presenting it as an episode of "Paradox Theatre," a "Twilight Zone" clone with a Rod Serling-esque narrator.
Then "Vast" plays fast with our genre expectations.
Forget the obligatory romance. The only things smoldering in this movie are the cigarettes constantly smoked by its two young leads. (Hey, it's the 1950s.)
Forget any attempt at comedy or sentiment. This straight-laced tale concerns a mismatched couple of nerdy young people tossed together on a nocturnal mission to find the truth -- if it's out there.
We spend a lot of time observing 16-year-old Cayuga High sophomore Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) who has just bought a "portable" reel-to-reel tape recorder the size of a Studebaker.
She can't wait to record the locals she meets at the first seasonal basketball game, where she tags along with Everett Sloane (Jake Horowitz), a smart recent Cayuga grad now a late-night DJ at local radio station WOTW.
(Fans of H.G. Wells will get the call-letters reference. Orson Welles fans will get the Sloane reference.)
After Everett heads to the station, Fay works the night shift as the town's telephone switchboard operator.
Fay proves to be quite the master of jacks and plugs in a lengthy shot focused on her skillset. Then, a distress call from a woman reports three large objects hovering over her house, and click!
The line goes dead.
Fay calls Everett, who broadcasts a strange signal-like sound coming across Fay's switchboard.
They get a call from a guy named Billy (Bruce Davis), who says he heard the same sound years ago when he and fellow soldiers (but only blacks and Mexicans) secretly buried a large metallic object.
Another call comes in, this one from an older woman (a luminous Gail Cronauer) who says she has a "companion story" to tell, but only if Everett comes to her home.
Good thing Fay has a "portable" tape recorder.
Where is all this going?
We don't know. But we do have clues.
Patterson, a commercial maker, financed this movie himself, and he extracts more value for his dollar than any James Cameron movie could.
The meticulous creation of a 1950s community works like time-machine magic, not just for its period props, costumes and cars, but for its authentic, narrow, small-town soul.
A strong, fluid opening shot wastes no time introducing "Vast of Night" as a piece of pure cinema. Cinematographer Miguel I. Littin-Menz really pulls out the f-stops.
A bold tracking shot races down a long street inches off the ground, bolts across a parking lot, veers into a basketball game in the gym, then careens through a crowd on the bleachers before diving out a window.
Is Littin-Menz giving a shout-out to Sam Raimi's famous "shakycam" shots in "Evil Dead," or Barry Sonnenfeld's outrageous camera stunts in "Raising Arizona?"
Here's a better question: What could Patterson do with a real Hollywood budget, say, something in the sky?
★ ★ ★
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
Other: An Amazon Studios release. Available on demand. Rated PG-13 for language. 89 minutes