Monolith

M, 93 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In an age of blockbusters with budgets over 200 million dollars, here is a movie that confirms some things can still be done. Every now and then a very low-budget film like Monolith comes along showing that a film that didn’t need buckets of money to make can still get invites to festivals.

Filmed in the Adelaide Hills, written by Lucy Campbell, directed by Matt Vesely and expertly edited by Tania Nehme, it was made for AUD 500,000. Over the last twelve months it was invited to festivals across the world before screening at the recent inaugural South by Southwest in Sydney. A pretty good track record for a debut feature.

It reflects our shared experience of lockdown and the habits we developed for contact online

The movie also shows it’s possible to hold an audience with a single on-screen actor in a single location. In part, its success on the festival circuit arcs back to our shared experience of lockdown and the habits we developed for contact online during the global pandemic. Weaving science-fiction with fear of the unknown and paranormal to a twilight zone of paranoia and related phobias brought about by the impact of social distancing over the long-term.

The film’s one visible character, the Interviewer played by Lily Sullivan, rarely leaves the frame, but there are other characters whose voices we hear without visual presence. Characters like Jarad played by Damon Herriman, one of the big screen’s favourite baddies (Judy and Punch, Once Upon a Time …in Hollywood), whose snarling voice is heard in an exchange at the start.

As the host of podcast Beyond Believable, the Interviewer takes calls from people who claim they have a good story to tell. A compelling story exposing the truth about the paranormal and unexplained would help rehabilitate her career as a journalist. From her perspective it could be career-defining, but Jarad’s claims that a secret agent from the future has been stalking him and his family over his whole life, gives us some idea of the nut jobs she must connect with.

It is the human voice that propels the plot as this isolated young woman house-sits her parents’ palatial villa adjoining bushland while taking calls from people around the world experiencing a similar strange phenomenon. There’s this black object like a brick and it seems to have some power over them.

What to make of these reports? The subdued palette of greys, blues and greens builds a chilly, claustrophobic atmosphere within a family home that wasn’t really a home.  Her parents call her from their holiday in Europe and their voices fill the space. Then a thumb drive of a childhood birthday party arrives in the post, dredging memories from deep within the Interviewer’s youth.

Steely resolve, the trait that has helped trash her reputation

Her only companion is the long-necked turtle in a fish tank. It seems to have an eating disorder like her. Is she bulimic? She is certainly a chain smoker.

Yet she maintains a steely resolve, the trait has probably helped trash her reputation. Sitting at her audio editing console, she edits a file to enhance the story she received from one of her key sources.

Her claims that she has been doxed won’t stand up as it becomes clear that the Interviewer has as dodgy a relationship with the truth as the rest of them. Sullivan, who was Miranda in the Picnic at Hanging Rock television series, is very good in this nuanced role, cultivating our empathy while deflecting our judgement.

All this would be fine were it not for the ‘monoliths’ that drive this sci-fi mystery. It comes down to dozens of strange black objects, closer in size to a house brick than any monolith like the object in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. These have been appearing in different countries and societies around the world, connecting with destructive ideation. How like some of famous thrillers of the 1970s Vesely’s film is. It made me think of Coppola’s The Conversation, where the world turns on an alienated individual compelled to face his true self.

Ultimately, this sci-fi mystery suffers from too much explicit explanation. As the details on what is orchestrating the global phenomenon are revealed and as the themes in the family backstory emerge, it seems that an approach that wilfully and perhaps even playfully withheld more, would have served the film better.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 October 2023. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes