From its very first moments The Vast of Night makes clear its intention to live in the moment. Set in 1950s New Mexico, every shot of the movie is absolutely filled with detail that speaks to its position in history. From the cars to the buildings to such indefinable things as the angle of the shots or the color balance, the viewer immediately gets the feeling that for all of its technical mastery Vast is not a modern film. The ambiance genuinely suggests that the movie was made in the 1950s and has just had a little bit of CGI added. Viewers aren’t granted much time to revel in the scenery though, as the film immediately introduces us to Fay, a young telephone switchboard operator, and her older mentor Everett, the host of the local radio station.
The two immediately strike up a dialogue that is almost too fast to follow as Everett teaches Fay how to use her new tape cassette recorder, a machine the size of a briefcase that is considered the height of modern technology. Strolling through the crowds turning out to attend the basketball game in the local high school gymnasium, Everett strikes up blazing fast conversations turned interviews with anyone and everyone, not only demonstrating the small town nature of the pair’s home but also the personality’s of the two characters: Everett ambitious and outgoing, Fay curious but shy. It is a masterful twist of exposition that lays out the entire setup without a single line of narration while also setting the breathless pace that will fill the rest of the film, a journey that is as enthralling as it is exhausting.
That’s the other unique thing about The Vast of Night. The whole movie is essentially one scene, the characters measuring the same time as the audience with no time skips or montages. The doors open for the basketball game in the first shot, and one way or another it will all be over by the time fans leave the game about two hours later. What fills that short span will be familiar to any who have connected the film’s time and place to the urban legends that follow it. Fay intercepts a strange noise on the switchboard, something altogether alien, and asks Everett and his radio tower for help tracking down “something in the sky.”
The truth is that this movie doesn’t really do much that hasn’t been done by other UFO movies before it, but it works because the director is fully aware of that fact. There are no scenes of exposition that needlessly force the viewer to sit through explanations of what a UFO is, because we are simply trusted to hear 1950s New Mexico and “something in the sky” and connect the dots. More than that, though, the viewer is more willing to accept knowing so little because the characters know so little. The lack of time skips has the unexpected effect of deepening the sympathy movie goers feel for Fay and Everett. We know as much as they know, learn as little as they learn as they spend a frightening and exhilarating two hours racing across town and into the desert chasing stories from the past and lights in the sky.
The Vast of Night is not a movie with any kind of point, it is an experience, a step back in time to a fully realized moment that likely never happened when two high schoolers could hear strange static on the radio and think maybe, just maybe, there were something out there too strange to comprehend and then try to understand it anyway. The place, the time, it opens is nothing more than an eerie collective dream that has captured the American imagination for years, but in a COVID-19 world maybe that’s all it needs to be, an escape, a two hour doorway to a desert night that beckons with unanswered questions and something in the sky.
The Vast of Night is rated PG-13 for one instance of brief and relatively mild swearing