Small town America in the 1950s, an era riddled with Cold War and reds-under-the-bed paranoia, and where something strange is spotted in the night sky. It all sounds painfully familiar so it takes a director with a distinctive vision to bring a fresh, contemporary take on a scenario we’ve experienced so many times before. In which case, remember the name. Andrew Patterson
His debut feature, The Vast Of Night, hasn’t just created excitement, it’s invited comparisons with an early Spielberg for an alien invasion story which not only tips its hat to The Twilight Zone and, more recently, The X-Files, but also clearly draws on Close Encounters for some of its visuals. Presented as an episode from fictional TV series “Paradox Theater TV Show”, complete with a 50s style TV, it takes us into a small town in New Mexico where high school student Fay (Sierra McCormick) is working the night shift at the telephone switchboard. As always, she’s listening to the late show presented by fast talking local radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), but her routine is disrupted by a call from somebody reporting large objects hovering over her house. Then she’s cut off. At the same time, the radio signal is repeatedly interrupted by strange interference and when Everett plays it live on air, asking listeners to phone in if they recognise it, a mysterious man calls with an extraordinary story. It’s just the start.
Patterson has taken us back to a time and a place seen as the home of alien invasions. In the late 40s, a US Army balloon had crashed on a New Mexico ranch – at least that was the official line – but the location was Roswell and versions of what happened have been well documented. Not that the incident is ever mentioned but it’s most definitely there, as part of the dark, threatening backdrop of the time. It’s underlined by so much of the action taking place at night or in subdued lighting, so that the audience is more than ever in the director’s hands when it comes to what it’s allowed to see. And what it’s not.
There’s another reference lurking in the shadows, again never named but cutely referenced in a repeated visual gag. In 1938, Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of The War Of The Worlds caused not just a sensation but genuine panic when people believed that what they were hearing was true. Another alien invasion story, certainly, but also one that revolved around the power of radio, which plays a key role in the narrative here. The radio station, by the way, is called WOTW, emblazoned in neon on the building where much of the action takes place. Neat.
With only a limited budget, Patterson has taken a genre which usually depends on spectacle and high-spec visual effects and given them neither. Instead, he concentrates on the characters and, while neither Fay nor Everett have enough of a back story, they’re sufficiently engaging to capture our attention right from the outset. He’s invested in the talents of Chilean cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz (behind the camera as well for the forthcoming Resistance) who creates an almost tangibly paranoid atmosphere with minimal lighting and grainy textures. And even when that low budget is at its most apparent in the scenes where the characters have individual monologues, Patterson uses the simplest of masterstrokes to take our disorientation to new heights. A blank screen. Like we said, remember the name.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Amazon Studios | Amazon Prime, 29 May 2020 | Dir. Andrew Patterson | Jake Horowitz, Sierra McCormick, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis.