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Sci-fi slow-burn ‘The Vast of Night’ is atmospheric but ultimately empty 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, The Vast of Night might be this year's top cinematic sycophant.

The debut film from director Andrew Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig Sanger references everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Stranger Things to Amazing Stories. Those stylistic and thematic tributes aren't completely cloying. In fact, some are rather cool, as this atmospheric science fiction flick embraces its derivativeness. The movie even uses an endearing but on-the-nose framing device: an episode of "Paradox Theater," an homage to The Twilight Zone. But the story – now, there's the rub.

In a small town in 1950s New Mexico, teenagers Everett and Fay are working their night jobs as the radio station's disc jockey and the phone company's switchboard operator, respectively. This makes them just about the only citizens not at the Cayuga High School basketball game. (Catch that name, Rod Serling fans?) But it also means they are seemingly the only ones to hear a strange sound. Fay is the first to notice it, coming through her phone lines, but Everett notices it too after it interrupts his broadcast.

Searching for answers, they ask anyone with information to call in to Everett's radio show. They also do some old-fashioned physical sleuthing. What they discover is not what they expect. Frustratingly, though, it's what we expect, because we've seen this a hundred times before. Admittedly, we've rarely seen it presented like this, as Patterson uses everything but a dolly zoom to jazz up an underwritten story on a small budget. This includes stylish art direction, atmospheric tracking shots, abrupt pacing changes, aspect-ratio experimentation and even odd moments in which the screen fades to black and stays that way for more than a minute. But these flourishes, which are alternately boss (to adopt the film's '50s lingo) and needlessly distracting, rarely create the requisite tension. Even more disappointingly, they never make up for a story better suited to a 30-minute film or, better yet, a radio drama.

As Fay, Sierra McCormick (TV shows A.N.T. Farm and Romantically Challenged) has a knack for rapid dialogue and an ability to hold our attention for excruciatingly long takes. But relative newcomer Jake Horowitz, as Everett, out-mumbles even Tom Hardy. And when his lack of enunciation is combined with purposely underlit shots, the film occasionally becomes both difficult to hear and see, at least on smaller screens with poor sound. Regrettably, that's how most audiences will witness it because of the COVID-19 theater closures. Patterson's debut, which caught the attention of some critics at Toronto and Slamdance last year, deserves to be shown in cinemas, despite its flaws. And that's where I hope to see his sophomore effort.

The X-Files told us the truth is out there. In the waning years of that television series, that wasn't always the case. But at least it proffered something profound. Patterson's movie, conversely, extends its stylish hand into the vastness of space and comes up empty.

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