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'The Vast of Night' review: Entertaining sci-fi nostalgia

Sierra McCormick in "The Vast of Night ."

Sierra McCormick in "The Vast of Night ." Credit: Amazon Studios

MOVIE "Vast of Night"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on Amazon Prime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Presented as an episode in a "Twilight Zone"-like anthology series called "Paradox Theater," this movie concerns a teenage switchboard operator named Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and a radio DJ named Everett (Jake Horowitz), who unearth and investigate strange sound frequencies during a single night in Cayuga, New Mexico, during the 1950s.

This burst of sci-fi nostalgia, directed by Andrew Patterson from a screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

MY SAY There's a large appetite for projects like "The Vast of Night" these days, between the sensation of "Black Mirror," the current revival of "The Twilight Zone" itself and several other prominent examples of old-fashioned sci-fi aesthetics being resurrected for the streaming age.

This picture arrives without the fanfare or star power of some of its more prominent counterparts, but it's a worthy addition to the canon, made with a commitment to reflecting the style of midcentury TV serials as well as the substance of Rod Serling's storytelling modes.

The filmmaker utilizes a self-reflexive approach that enhances the impact of the narrative rather than seeming like a distracting gimmick. The movie begins with a slow push-in through a living room into a shot of a 1950s television, with an elaborate narrated introductory sequence establishing the Paradox Theater brand.

We will return to the grainy, flickering black-and-white imagery throughout the course of the movie, interwoven with the full, rich colors and deep shadows that characterize this setting that is at once ordinary and rife with mysteries.

It's an effective nostalgia ploy that also serves a strong narrative purpose by casting the events at hand in a time capsule of sorts, giving extra resonance to a story that's ultimately concerned with the great unknown, the forces influencing our lives that are beyond our control and our comprehension.

It's crafted with a strong visual sensibility — the camera drifts and wanders with great foreboding purpose and the dim, lamplit rooms integrate with the town's dark, empty streets to suggest the onset of something of great significance as Fay and Everett uncover the extraterrestrial origins of the frequencies.

But "The Vast of Night" really stands out thanks to its meticulous, intricate sound design. This is among the more underappreciated of film arts — most moviegoers probably don't think much about it beyond brief mentions at the Academy Awards — but it is a major component of what makes this movie work, with every moment imbued with ominous suggestion.

A ringing telephone, the chattering of crickets, the stories told by callers into the local radio station, a discordant score with drums and cymbals that underlies the sense of dread — it's a soundscape of a level of detail that befits the story about an investigation into the aural universe and could also easily transition to a radio play without much of an impact being lost.

This is, in other words, an outstanding technical achievement, a movie made by filmmakers who fully understand how to utilize every component of this art form to the fullest possible effect. The bravura craft is in service of a narrative that is ultimately a bit minor and inconsequential, playing like an episode of an anthology rather than a fully-formed stand-alone work. But that is, of course, the point. Let's hope there's more to come.

BOTTOM LINE "The Vast of Night" is an entertaining sci-fi nostalgia piece that's made with an unusually high level of technical flair.

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