This review is dedicated to my father-in-law, Dr. Frederick Doe, who passed away one year ago, and whom we miss every single day.

Disclaimer: I am close enough to some aspects of this movie that my critical assessment might be somewhat skewed. I’ll reveal that connection momentarily.

I have a responsibility, after all. Professional film critics will be honest from the start if they have a personal connection to the material they’re about to review. There is no such thing as “objectivity” or “unbiased reporting” in journalism, but the best writers aim to make a reasonable, well-supported, and enlightening argument. When I reviewed Doctor Strange, it was only fair of me to confess my friendship with one of the filmmakers, even though I was going to praise it as my favorite Marvel movie regardless of that connection.

So, stay tuned for a note about why The Vast of Night hits so close to home for me.

The truth is up there, somewhere over the WOTW radio studio.  (Still from the Amazon Studios trailer.)

No, I have never been visited by aliens. That’s not what I mean — although The Vast of Night, the new Amazon Studios indie sci-fi flick now streaming on Amazon Prime, teases us with the possibility of just such a visitation in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico.

Yes, I did play high school basketball — and this film opens as the whole town (or so it seems) converges on a Cayuga campus gymnasium for a big game. And the specifics ring true to high-stakes high-school sports rivalries. What’s more, they ring true to the 1950s — impressively so. No, this isn’t my connection to the film: I played in the ’80s, not the ’50s. But the the production designers, writers, and cast, serve up an enthrallingly convincing recreation of that time. They do so by leaning with enthusiasm into the sights and sounds of the period’s science fiction, beginning with an homage to The Twilight Zone and quickly segueing into clever references (in substance and in style) to War of the Worlds. Everything from the cars to the radio station to that gymnasium feels so legitimate that we’re likely to find our disbelief impressively suspended.

At this basketball game, we meet a fast-talking young local celebrity, radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz, like a young Cillian Murphy), who has a reputation as an expert when it comes to any kind of electrical circuitry. He’s also popular with listeners, young women especially, who find his voice — if not his Clark Kent-ish-ness — to be dreamy. (Note: This is where I recommend viewers activate the Closed Captioning, because the dialogue in this movie, especially in those first 15 minutes, is often muffled and convoluted by a complicated sound design and by characters who revel in the lingo of their dialect — lingo that I suspect to be as much invented as revived.) It’s clear that Everett was born to be a DJ, and even clearer that he enjoys the status his position gives him with the locals. And you don’t want to miss anything he has to say.

While the town cheers for the local basketball team, the streets are haunted by a hush.

Similarly, you want to catch every little twitchy line from Everett’s young friend and fangirl Faye (Sierra McCormick, a crackerjack with tricky dialogue the likes of which we haven’t heard since True Grit‘s Haley Steinfeld or, reaching back farther, Raising Arizona‘s Holly Hunter). Faye’s enthusiasm for the future of technology is amusing both for how much the 1950s dreamers got right (“TV telephones”) and how far they were off (transportation innovations both magnet-controlled and vacuum-tubed). No, I have never been a switchboard operator or a DJ — that’s not my connection with this material. But I do share the film’s preoccupation with primitive electronic gadgets of the time — particularly tape recorders, which were my favorite childhood toy. Everett loves recorders. And Faye is a switchboard pro. A slow-zoom long-take allows her to show off her skills as she zigzags between a dozen conversations in what may be my favorite scene of 2020 so far.

As Everett broadcasts the hits” to almost nobody during Cayuga’s big basketball game, and as Faye connects calls from listeners to the DJ, they stumble onto an inexplicably creepy sound on the circuitry — a muffled noise like a broken reel-to-reel inside a wind tunnel. And it quickly becomes clear that something is up. I mean that quite literally — something is up. It isn’t long before they hear reports about “something in the sky.” And then the lines from panicked callers start going dead. Everett and Faye, as if born for a moment like this, spring into action like a Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew, or a young Mulder and Scully.

Listening closely: Everett and Faye are an ideal team for pursuing the paranormal.

No, my disclaimer isn’t about how much I love this movie’s influences, although the aforementioned debt its dialogue owes to Coen Brothers is substantial. And the tension of its night-driving scenes recall both Raising Arizona and Blood Simple. Before it’s over, there will be clear references to Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and obvious X-Files associations.

But I’m led to speculate about other possible influences, too. I thought of the indie horror hit It Follows during the film’s wonderfully unsettling ankle-level, long-take, high-speed journeys through the maze of Cayuga’s dark streets. (One low-level take in particular feels like it was filmed by WALL-E himself, or one of those Amazon Delivery Droids. We go zipping around the empty shadows of the city center until we zoom from the dark into the bright and crowded gymnasium, then stop in the middle of a basketball game, and become part of the fast-break action. Exhilarating!)

I also thought of — or rather, felt the influence of — Twin Peaks, which achieves a similar sense that something supernatural and even spiritual is at work in the shadows. (If you’re familiar with Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return, you know what I mean.) The Lynch influence is particularly strong as the movie begins spotlighting the testimonies of characters emerging from behind closed doors, those who represent the overlooked, the oppressed, and the flat-out ignored. (This movie is as much about the quiet sufferings of the alienated as it is about the possibility of aliens. And, in a timely tangent, we hear the voice of an African American veteran who seems delighted to be taken seriously for, perhaps, the very first time.)

Faye (Sierra McCormick) will remind viewers of Coen brothers’ characters played by Haley Steinfeld and Holly Hunter.

I don’t know any of these impressive young actors, although both Horowitz and McCormick are spectacular. And they chew on a screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, both also new to me, that is generous with speeches and acrobatic with slang and figures of speech. Nor do I know director Andrew Patterson, although I’d love to pick his brain about his playfulness with formats and screen ratios.

But I do know Roswell, New Mexico. I know it and I love it. My wife Anne, who grew up there, knows it far better than me. Yes, I know — I said the film takes place in Cayuga, but that’s a fictional stand-in for Roswell, clearly. In fact, many of the local references, including basketball-team rivalries and street names, were spot-on; Anne verified that for me.

What’s more, I’m a believer that, as Mulder would insist, the truth is out there. 

Anne’s father — who passed away a year ago this week, which is why I’m dedicating this review to him — was a local Roswell celebrity as a long-time doctor and chief of staff at its local hospital. He knew some of the people who had worked at the hospital on the occasion of the famous “Roswell Incident.” They verified several details of what has ballooned — or rather, weather-ballooned — into American mythology. They verified that the hospital got a call when something was discovered in the desert outside of town. The call was an urgent request for several child-sized coffins. As Anne likes to say, you don’t call the hospital and make that request if what you’ve found is a weather-balloon dummy. But then, whatever—or whomever—was recovered there and brought to the hospital was seized and taken by the government. Now, not everybody jumps to the conclusions that this was an alien crash site. Some will point to the fact that there was still an active POW camp in the region, as well as a nuclear testing site. And when I start thinking about possible connections there, well… let’s just say I would prefer to learn that it was a UFO crash site to the other possibilities that come to mind.

Tracking the truth: Everett is taking calls for relevant testimonies.

Anyway, my point is this: I love a lot about Roswell, particularly the details of what it was before The X-Files turned it into an alien-seeker’s amusement park (much to the dismay of most of those who live there). And I loved this occasion to revisit something very like it, to play with the possibilities yet again of what events might have unfolded on the occasion of that mysterious 1947 incident.

Nevertheless, I do wish The Vast of Night had a stronger conclusion, not the familiar and somewhat-predictable denouement at which these filmmakers arrive. It answers questions too neatly and fails to surprise us.

Further, I wish it had done more with what ends up being its strongest thread: the idea that we cannot hope to arrive at meaningful truth unless we open up the lines to all callers, and listen in particular to those voices that have been silenced, undervalued, and even condemned. Black callers matter.

A rare moment of silence in the presence of smooth-talking Everett and frantic Faye.

Still, these are ultimately quibbles about what is, altogether, a fantastic surprise and one of the highlights of the pandemic’s home-cinema season.

I wish I could have see this on a big screen. And I am immediately a fan of the filmmaking team of Patterson, Montague, and Sanger. I want to see them make more movies. And I would particularly request that studios refuse to give them more extravagant resources, as this movie is, I believe, powerful evidence that their creativity soars when they are faced with the challenges and limitations of low-budget filmmaking. With fantastic editing tricks and an evocative score — they cleverly incorporate Struass’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” best known for its role in 2001: A Space Odyssey — they cast a remarkable spell. As with last-year’s biggest sci-fi surprise, Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell’s Prospect, The Vast of Night is a reminder that less is more, most of the time, and while cinema can dazzle us with special effects wizardry, it does us far more good when it calls upon that priceless capacity within its audience: their own imaginations.