The Big Picture

  • The Vast of Night is a hidden gem of a science fiction movie that has made a huge impression despite being released with little fanfare during the pandemic.
  • This low-budget film draws inspiration from classics like The Twilight Zone and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and effectively combines elements of science fiction and horror.
  • The film’s immersive 1950s setting, expertly crafted on a low budget, and its chilling storytelling through long monologues and atmospheric scenes make it a must-watch for fans of the genre.

Over the last decade, several fantastic science fiction movies have seeped into our collective movie-watching consciousness and redefined the entire landscape of the genre, but then there are little gems like The Vast of Night that come along and make a huge impression with barely any noise. This 2020 film was released during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite playing off of the strengths of many other alien invasion movies that came before, The Vast of Night ended up accidentally becoming the perfect movie for its era. Between the ’50s small-town imagery and eerie accounts of UFO encounters, there’s an element of distrust found at every corner. For a movie that was shot in 2016 and had its main festival run in 2019, you couldn’t ask for a better movie to hit streaming services in the summer of 2020. Sure, you might have missed it, but The Vast of Night is still there, waiting for you to fire it up.

If you’re a fan of The Twilight Zone, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and low-budget genre pictures, then stop what you’re doing and go watch The Vast of Night immediately. This is the movie for you. It was directed by Andrew Patterson in his feature-length debut, and stars Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz as two teenagers who accidentally stumble across a radio frequency that could point to signs of extraterrestrial visitors. While you would technically classify Patterson’s film as science fiction, it has elements that surprisingly lean farther into horror territory than many people give it credit for. Given the period that The Vast of Night is recreating, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, especially given that one of its main influences, The Twilight Zone, has a similar approach to sci-fi horror.

‘The Vast of Night’ Feels Like a Feature-Length ‘Twilight Zone’ Episode

Image via Amazon Prime Video

The similarities between The Vast of Night and The Twilight Zone don’t end there, though. One of the things that got this movie so much attention, aside from being released in a total wasteland of a movie calendar, was that it basically operated as a feature-length Rod Serling production. The film has that same cold and eerie feeling that the classic series does, relies on atmosphere and a low budget to create most of its tension, has an accidental topical message (but more on that later), and even opens in the same way as the show. That’s right, the audience might not be greeted by an on-screen host, but The Vast of Night opens with a bit of narration delivered by somebody with an eerily similar vocal cadence to Serling’s. The camera dollies in on a small 1950s TV, a narrator delivers a vague bit of prose to set the stage for the type of story that we’re about to see, and then we’re off. This movie does The Twilight Zone better than any of the revivals that have come along over the years.

‘The Vast of Night’ Is Expertly Made on a Low Budget Dollar

A girl is scared in the car in a still from The Vast of Night
Image via Amazon Prime Video

From there, the movie has a bit of a patient start as we get to know Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz), a switchboard operator and a disc jockey who are leaving their high school basketball game to go attend to their individual night shifts. Director Andrew Patterson wastes no time to flex his filmmaking, though. Even during these early scenes, he’s already using long takes and impressively planned out tracking shots to guide the audience through the school gymnasium and town’s streets. The attention to detail with costumes, props, and set design are all bafflingly well done for a movie that is this low budget and was under $700,000 to produce, according to Patterson. You could say that Patterson allows this stretch to be a bit slower so that once the spooky alien shenanigans start going down, we’ve already been steeped in this 1950s world for a good minute. Plain and simple, he immerses his audience first, then gives them the good stuff.

Once Fay and Everett come across the mysterious audio frequency, they reach out to their listeners to see if they know anything about where and what the signal came from. Incoming calls start pouring in, taking them down a deliciously chilling rabbit hole of people’s UFO accounts. This is where the movie gets really good. The two of them venture around town to try and get answers as to what might truly be going on, and although all signs point to aliens, they don’t want to just accept any sort of twisted or confused bits of misinformation. After all, these stories that they’re hearing could have a very rational and reasonable explanation and ultimately mean that they have nothing to worry about.

RELATED: How Horror Became Such a Reliable Genre at the Box Office in the COVID Era

‘The Vast of Night’ Is Terrifying In Its Own Way

A boy and girl from the 1950s are walking down the street in The Vast of Night
Image via Amazon Prime Video

Still, Fay and Everett want to be sure about what’s going on in their small town, so they end up sitting in for several stories. Now before you go watch The Vast of Night and expect to have the life scared out of you by terrifying sights of incomprehensible alien life forms, lower your expectations a bit. Actually, lower them a lot. This movie builds a big chunk of its unnerving tone through these long monologues, ranging from stories of UFO sightings to alien abductions of children. There’s also a nice fat serving of atmosphere, given the whole movie is set at night, and follows our characters as they make their way around their empty town in the barren, low-lit streets. These days, many science fiction movies can rely on a big budget to provide a filmmaker with the resources for realizing whatever intergalactic story that they might have in mind. This movie, on the other hand, is all about the simple stuff. It has a killer script, a highly inventive director behind the camera, and a fantastic cast. The Vast of Night is the real deal.

‘The Vast of Night’ Mirrored the COVID-19 Pandemic

But what makes this film such an interesting artifact of its time is the way that it mirrored the world that it was released in. Needless to say, the COVID-19 pandemic was a terrifying time in all of our lives, particularly those early months when we had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know what this virus was, how long it would be around, how to stay safe from it besides a few basic pointers, what it would mean for our near future, and what it would do to our world as a whole in the long run. Many of us knew to take this moment in time gravely seriously and proceed with the precautions that we were advised to. While we didn’t know much in those early days, we did know that we had to listen to the scientists and be an ear for those who had gotten sick from the virus. It was a way of making sure that we all did the right thing, and didn’t just assume that everything would be okay by going about our lives as usual.

Fay and Everett took strangely similar precautions to those watching the movie that they were in. On a night that was just supposed to be their high school basketball game, their entire shared universe is suddenly put into question. Instead of simply going to work and carrying out their shifts like normal, clocking out when their shift is up and going home, they take it upon themselves to do their research. They don’t necessarily want to have to go out onto the streets of their town, where aliens might be lurking around (or above) every corner, but they have to do so for the good of their neighbors. To someone who might not take this night very seriously, the UFO accounts that they are given might sound a bit extreme. But for two educated and level-headed teenagers like Fay and Everett, this meant taking the right precautions and finding the best way to tackle these potential alien invaders.

The ending of the film chillingly mirrors many people’s stories with COVID-19, but that’s for you to go and see for yourself. In some ways, The Vast of Night could have been taken simply as a fun homage to Steven Spielberg and Rod Serling, released on Prime Video at a time when hardly any movies were coming out and everyone was stuck at home. What it ended up being was an accidentally relevant science fiction mirror to our world. It taught those of us who did tune in to do our research and to take world-shattering news seriously instead of brushing it off and acting like it isn’t there. Come for the crafty filmmaking, incredible cast, and throwback science fiction elements, but stay for its unintentional message about being an educated citizen in society. The Vast of Night might have slipped by you in 2020, but it’s one of the best modern science fiction movies, and will always be there for you, like a UFO that’s ready to scoop you up.

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