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Review: Sci-fi throwback ‘The Vast of Night’ offers fresh style with extraterrestrial story

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night.” (Amazon Studios)
Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night.” (Amazon Studios)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

They just don’t make ’em like “The Vast of Night” anymore. This uber-cool throwback ’50s sci-fi movie is the directorial debut of Oklahoma-based filmmaker Andrew Patterson. But somehow, this retro, nostalgic film, written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger and presented as a hypothetical episode of a “Twilight Zone”-style TV series titled “Paradox Theater,” feels incredibly fresh and modern in its singular style and tone.

Patterson weaves a hypnotic, spellbinding rhythm with the cinematography and storytelling of “The Vast of Night,” which oozes atmosphere and style. Set over the course of one night in a small New Mexico town, unfolding almost in real time, Patterson pairs incredibly long, exquisitely choreographed camera movements with long monologues punctuated by bursts of action.

Shot by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz, the camera winds in and around a hazy, sepia-toned high school gym where a crowd has gathered for a basketball game, bobbing around the players and cheerleaders, traversing the court and parking lot as we pick up with Everett (Jake Horowitz), the hot shot radio ace, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a budding audiophile anxious to try out her new Westinghouse recorder.

With the whole town preoccupied at the game, their seemingly chance encounter turns into a life-changing night for the two as she picks up a sound of strange interference on his radio show while at her job operating the telephone switchboard. Curious, they keep asking questions, and answers arrive, whether they like them or not.

A mysterious man calls into Everett’s show with a tale of extraterrestrial evidence and government malfeasance. They head out on a wild goose chase to track down a long-lost recording and find an older woman with her own story to tell and a long-held alien incantation. All the while come reports and whispers of something strange in the sky.

McCormick, outfitted in bobby socks and cat-eye glasses as Fay, proves to be the breakout star as the heart of the film and an unlikely hero. With reams of dialogue and unbroken takes, it’s as if she and Horowitz are performing in a play that involves many, many moving parts: cameras and cars and characters galore.

In one nearly nine-minute unbroken take, McCormick delicately performs Fay’s dawning realization that something very ominous is afoot while displaying a tremendous faculty for the switchboard as she questions the interference she’s heard on the radio and fields reports of disturbances around town.

“The Vast of Night” is an ideal feature debut (not to mention an entirely self-financed one produced outside the centers of industry) in which Patterson has taken a high-concept idea, applied a few creative limitations, cast a pair of charismatic future stars and then executed the material flawlessly, demonstrating his uncommon and uncompromising vision.

But it’s so much more than just a great first movie; it’s a bold, surprising and deeply original piece of work reverent to its references and haunting in its darkened, dreamlike form. It’s the kind of film where you wonder: Did that just happen? And when the spell breaks, and the film is over, it’s almost like waking from a dream itself.

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