The Vast of Night couldn’t be more explicit about its influences. Andrew Patterson’s debut film, streaming on Amazon Prime Video as of today, is presented as a spooky episode of a Twilight Zone–esque show called Paradox Theater broadcasting on a retro TV. The film is a cleverly paced, micro-budgeted sci-fi thriller set in the late ’50s, in the shadow of Sputnik. And thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the only way to see it when it opened on the big screen two weeks ago was at the most 1950s of venues: the drive-in theater.
The national closure of movie theaters has sent the usual summer-film season into hibernation. Every blockbuster has been postponed for months, and there’s still no clear idea of when cinemas will reopen on a wide enough scale to welcome those movies back. Drive-ins have gone from antiquated gimmicks to the backbone of today’s (paltry) weekly box-office reports. So it’s fitting that cinema’s strange summer is being kicked off by a throwback like The Vast of Night—a story of amateur radio sleuths hunting an extraterrestrial audio signal that tells a familiar tale with eerie deftness.
The aesthetic is Twilight Zone, and the plot could be right out of The X-Files. But despite its small-screen influences and tiny budget, The Vast of Night is shockingly cinematic, overflowing with the kind of inventiveness you rarely see from a first-time filmmaker. It reminded me of Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Rian Johnson’s Brick, or Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook—all small-scale genre pieces that functioned as calling-card movies, in which their directors threw every bit of visual panache they could at viewers with the energy of someone who might not get another chance.