At first, Encounter looks like another effects-driven exercise in sci-fi paranoia involving a heroic former soldier trying to save his kids from evil aliens from outer space. That said, it might seem a little against the action movie grain to have a hero who is named Malik and played by a British actor with a South Asian background (Riz Ahmed, offering up yet another a immaculate, immensely moving performance). Other early hints that this isn’t the usual space invasion story lie in the slightly offbeat editing and murkier than usual digital cinematography, which start to suggest that the filmmakers are planning to zhuzh things up with some subtle political-cultural-subtextual jiggery-pokery somewhere down the line.
Turns out director Michael Pearce (Beast) and his co-screenwriter, Joe Barton (scribe for TV’s Girl/Haji and horror feature The Ritual), along with the cast and crew, have a whole other barrel of monkeys up their sleeves, and the film is all the better for it.
The Bottom Line
Richer, smarter and stranger than it first looks.
This review will try its best not to spoil the film’s biggest surprise, although even to say there is one constitutes something of a spoiler in itself. Publications, programs and platforms that allow themselves to discuss works like this in full, right up to what happens at the end, will have rich pickings to feast on with Encounter. It’s a surprisingly meaty work that works on several levels at once. We hope that it’s not giving too much away to indicate that it does indeed touch on post-Trump era xenophobia and racial politics, PTSD among ex-service men and women, the dangerously insane ubiquity of guns in America, not least in the hands of sometimes twitchy-fingered law-enforcement officers, and, of course, pandemic anxiety that divides cultures into warring, irreconcilable infected vs. uninfected camps.
However, arguably the film works best in the most simple way, as a portrait of a deep, papa-bear love of a father for his two sons. That strong, persistent emotional heartbeat is tenderly nurtured in the performances of Ahmed, the astonishingly good Lucian-River Chauhan, who plays Malik’s adolescent son, Jay, and Aditya Geddada as the slightly younger Bobby. If this were a just and righteous universe, Encounter would have every chance of breaking out of the proverbial genre-movie ghetto and gaining awards recognition for those performances alone. Thanks to what must be a lightning-in-a-bottle combination of good direction from Pearce, chemistry among the three performers, innate talent, patience and luck, the trio bring to life the complicated dynamics between a divorced father who’s been absent too much and young boys, who are themselves quite different characters, longing for a male role model.
In a funny way, the movie this most resembles is Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return (2003), although the MacGuffin that drove the story in that film was quite different, a quest for a buried something that the film’s taciturn patriarch wouldn’t explain. Here, Malik shows up seemingly out of nowhere one night to whisk Jay and Bobby off on a “surprise” holiday, which is really a mission to find safety at the base of the military organization for which he now works.
But the few brief scenes before this dead-of-night departure have observed Malik dousing himself in aerosol bug killers and searching his eyeballs for signs of alien life. Meanwhile, the camera has noted for us in many close-ups that arthropods are everywhere, scurrying up walls and banging against screens, and going about their inexplicable buggy business, possibly all the while carrying a deadly parasite that’s delivered by meteors à la The Day of the Triffids or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We even see the boys’ mother, Piya (Janina Gavankar), who’s now married to a boring WASP farmer named Dylan (Misha Collins), get stung badly enough to create a bleeding sore. And then she’s soon throwing up.
Before Malik eventually gets round to explaining to his sons the dire risk they’re in, he wins them over like many another estranged parent with promises that while they’re with him, they can eat all the candy they like and sleep whenever they want. The only rules: Don’t talk to strangers, stay in the car, and please don’t make Dad listen to too much K-pop. More attached to his mom and even to Dylan, Bobby wants to go home after all the endless driving, and even more so when he learns about the aliens. Shy, artistic Jay, who it’s suggested is deeply invested in his idea of his dad as a war hero and man of action, will do anything necessary to keep the three of them together, although like any early adolescent he sulks and pouts when told off for letting his brother get away from him.
Nitpickers might quibble that the film achieves its sleight of hand by following certain cinematic conventions about point of view that deliberately wrong-foot the viewer in a way that’s a bit of a cheat. It’s only when Octavia Spencer’s character enters the story that all the terms of reference shift, also entailing a different color palette and more conventional shooting style. Even so, we’re still kept guessing pretty far into the final act about what exactly is going on, in a not dissimilar way to how Pearce handled dramatic ambiguity in his last feature, the excellent, if little seen, Beast. Spencer, by the way, could do this kind of part (which can’t be explained without spoiling) in her sleep, but she still brings light and shade to the proceedings and adds a motherly warmth to what’s often a bleak situation.
Speaking of bleak, as the film moves inexorably toward its Nevada-desert final showdown near an abandoned mining town that looks like an unused location from Nomadland, many viewers will steel themselves for an inevitable tragedy. The fact that events don’t quite pan out in the worst way possible is, in commercial terms, probably a smart move. But by the end, having built such a strong portrait of pain and social injustice, the final shots are little more than Band-Aids on gunshot wounds.