Privilege is a dangerous thing. People with privilege often conflate having the power to do something with having the right to do it. In MONOLITH, a new sci-fi thriller from director Matt Vesely and writer Lucy Campbell, a wealthy journalist makes that very mistake, with potentially disastrous results for humanity. The film is a well-constructed chamber piece that manages to turn its limited cast and locale into a tense, compelling story with wide-ranging consequences. It’s a strong feature debut from both Vesely and Campbell, and a fine showcase for star Lily Sullivan (whom horror fans will be seeing more of very soon in Evil Dead Rise).
Sullivan plays an investigative journalist — credited only as The Interviewer — who has fallen from grace after failing to vet a source properly, thus accusing someone of a crime without having the evidence to back it up. After losing her job and filming a public apology for her lapse in judgment, she starts working on a mystery podcast. When she gets an anonymous tip about a person named Floramae King (voiced by Ling Cooper Tang) and a mysterious brick she’s supposedly involved with, The Interviewer goes down a rabbit hole of increasingly disturbing leads that point to a possible extraterrestrial origin for the bricks, which seem to be popping up all over the world. The podcast grows in popularity even as her interview subjects beg her not to continue, and her combination of hubris and questionable journalistic ethics push her forward until it might be too late to turn back.
With a few brief exceptions, MONOLITH takes place entirely in one location with only one character on camera. Someone doxxed The Interviewer in retaliation for her unfounded accusation, so she had to leave her apartment and take refuge in her parents’ massive modern vacation home. She communicates entirely by phone and pieces her podcast together from her recordings. Having the main character hole up in an outrageously expensive house does two important things for the film: it shows you the class dynamics at play right away, and it makes the scenes of The Interviewer working on her podcast far more visually interesting. The only thing more painstakingly boring than editing a podcast is watching someone else edit a podcast, but MONOLITH makes it exciting and suspenseful. Tania Nehme’s crisp editing and Benjamin Speed’s eerie score go a long way in that regard, but setting the action in a beautiful home with a gorgeous view certainly helps too.
That class distinction is subtle at first, but it becomes more pointed as the story progresses. Floramae tells a story about a wealthy family she once worked for who stole her brick from her, and she’s clearly still terrified of them even though she hasn’t spoken to them in decades. When The Interviewer twists her words around via her unscrupulous editing, Floramae panics, saying she doesn’t want the family to hear her talk about them that way.
The Interviewer speaks to other people who say they’ve also received these mysterious bricks, including a wealthy art collector named Klaus (voiced by Terence Crawford) who has gathered several of the bricks in his gallery. Klaus didn’t get all his bricks by legal means; in fact, he now owns the brick that was stolen from Floramae, who insists that the brick has a special power. MONOLITH doesn’t draw too fine a point here, but the fact that a white owner of an art gallery is using his wealth to consolidate objects of power stolen from non-white people is an important detail, especially given The Interviewer’s similar penchant for stealing marginalized people’s stories for her podcast.
The Interviewer believes her subjects’ stories about the bricks’ power and the theory that they spread via word of mouth. She doesn’t immediately heed their warnings to stop the podcast, though. All she cares about are her listener numbers and her own ego: she talks about how “career-defining” the story is, focusing only on what these people’s accounts of the bricks can do for her rather than what they might do to the people listening to her.
The Interviewer’s self-obsession makes the film’s format that much more significant: we only ever hear the other characters, just like she does. We spend so much time with Sullivan, who does a tremendous job of carrying the film with just her face and her voice, that she becomes a microcosm for the outside world. The stakes are no longer just about the fate of one unethical journalist; the fate of the entire world may hang in the balance, and the suspense builds as we wonder if we can trust The Interviewer to do the right thing.
MONOLITH is a clever sci-fi thriller that does a lot with a little. Its explorations of class and power raise questions about who gets to tell our stories and what damage those people do by claiming the title of “truth-teller.” Chilling, mysterious, and thought-provoking, MONOLITH is a modern look at the classic invasion story.
MONOLITH had its international premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. Make sure to read our SXSW coverage here.
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