Great style & top performances energize a classic sci-fi premise in the artful, atmospheric ‘The Vast of Night’

Strange signal: Switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) hears a disturbing signal in ‘The Vast of Night’.

THE VAST OF NIGHT **** (89 minutes) 13+
We’ve seen it so many times before that we really didn’t need to see it again, did we? Signals from above suggest alien beings are hovering about wanting to make contact with the jittery, excitable humans who have heard the call.

It’s a well-worn sci-fi premise that reflects the long-time fascination cinema has had with extraterrestrial contact ever since Michael Rennie came visiting in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Given how familiar we have become with the tropes of this sub-genre it comes as no mean feat that The Vast of Night manages to bring a fresh, frightening, sometimes spellbinding edge to the age-old intrigue about beings from another world.

Steeped in style and showcasing the power of understated acting, long shots and daring camera moves, The Vast of Night enters the fray as one of the best, most engrossing films about alien visitation thus far. Think of it as Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Early Years.

It also marks a wholly remarkable first feature from director Andrew Patterson, who co-wrote the film with Craig W. Sanger and who, like his mainly young cast, is a relative unknown.

Set in small-town America in the 1950s, a time when the nation was bouncing with post-war hubris and riddled with Cold War paranoia, the film is cleverly presented as an episode of a Twilight Zone-type TV show called Paradox Theatre.

We are taken into the story as the camera slowly tracks into the tube of a vintage television set on which the film is playing. It begins in murky black & white, with poor sound and dodgy reception, but soon announces itself as something truly cinematic as the frame widens, full colour bleeds in and the camera takes flight.

It’s the night of the big basketball game and most of the population of the small New Mexico town of Cayuga have excitedly crammed into the high school’s huge sports hall.

Two people aren’t able to see the game, however. Fay (Sierra McCormick) is busy working the town’s telephone switchboard while her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz) begins his shift at the local radio station. They were at the hall earlier to capture some of the buzz and atmosphere with Fay’s new reel-to-reel tape recorder, but now they’ve got work.

And there’s definitely something in the air. Fay gets a panicked call about something hovering in the sky. Then a strange sound interferes with the radio transmission, but it’s not static. Soon a call comes through to Everett to discuss the sound, explaining that it’s not some random glitch, but a communique with a secret history.

Fay and Everett begin investigating and the story behind the sound gets more and more unnerving, its origin more unsettling than Everett’s initial suspicions that it could be the Soviets launching an attack on America.

It’s truly remarkable how such a modest, ultra-low budget film delivers on so many fronts.

The tightly wound, low-key lead performances by Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz are something to behold, grounding the film with a tense mixture of naturalism and B-movie intrigue as they race through the darkened streets of their town chasing answers to questions that keep multiplying.

As a fast-thinking motormouth, Horowitz is a ball of inquisitive energy, but it is McCormick who really owns the film and has the biggest journey. In her bobby socks and saddle shoes, and wearing large cat’s eye glasses, she sinks into character with amazing conviction.

One key scene is especially noteworthy. Composed of a single, tightly framed shot it captures Fay busily working the plug-crazy vintage switchboard as she invisibly delivers vital story exposition about the film’s central mystery.

Robert Redford has said how proud he is of the single-shot scene he did in All the President’s Men. That one went for about six minutes, this one goes for around eight and is even more impressive given that it comes from a young unknown actress, not a big Hollywood star.

That kind of inventive camerawork is typical of the the film’s bold style. There are lengthy, mood-punching tracking shots through the crowded sports hall and across the empty streets and fields of the town. Sometimes the film momentarily reverts to its TV format, sometimes the vision blanks out altogether while the audio continues.

The film is full of seductive visual teasing, accompanied by an effective, haunting score. These camera moves could just be show-off shots but it’s more likely they’re intended to hint at the eerie possibility that the townsfolk are being closely watched by invisible visitors. The suggestion is subtle but strong, testament to how well-directed the film is.

Of course the film has its stumbles. Does Fay really have to do so much running? And while the film’s fabulous climax honours the best of classic supernatural TV shows such as Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits by ending with a question mark rather than a conclusion, did it have to be so visually literal?

Given how stylistically weird and wonderful The Vast of Night is, it is somewhat jolting to learn that the film, which was shot in 2016 in a month for about $US700,000, was turned down by 18 film festivals before it finally found traction. It has since won a swag of awards from the Slamdance, Toronto, Overlook and Hamptons and Edinburgh film festivals.

Here’s hoping that signals a long life both for the film and for director Andrew Patterson, who has made a truly mesmeric movie for less than the cost of catering on a standard studio film.

The Vast of Night is on Amazon Prime.