Movie Review: Encounter

Encounter is the kind of movie that starts as one thing and then, halfway through, takes a 180-degree turn and transforms into something entirely different leaving the viewer with, if not a severe case of whiplash, at least with the sense that its creators may not be playing fair. Some may appreciate its bravado at overturning genre and story expectations. Others may be left wondering if the devices deployed are a cheap shot, or if the director chickened out at the end, or if the initial concept wasn’t developed enough or lost something in its translation to the big screen.

A bright object hurtles across the Solar System until it reaches Earth’s atmosphere where it begins to burn and splinter. Part of the object crashes somewhere in the United States and we are soon treated to a cringe-inducing series of close-ups of organic-like objects seeping out from the crash site and being munched upon by insects which are themselves munched upon by other insects which are then eaten birds and so on until one of these organisms invades a mosquito who happily bites a human, the full exchange of fluids again shown in close-up. Meanwhile, in a motel somewhere in the West Coast, Malik (Riz Ahmed), a former Marine, is monitoring newscasts, consulting maps, checking his weapons and spraying his whole body with bug spray to later use it to spray a wallpapered wall from which a whole army of creepy crawlers are coming out.

He sets off to his former wife’s (and new husband’s) isolated farm to rescue his children from this invasion, a mission which is made more urgent from our perspective as we see her being badly bitten by a bug, leaving a bleeding sore in her back, and hear the sounds of her vomiting afterwards. Malik arrives late in the evening, breaks into the house and tells older son Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and his brother Bobby (Aditya Geddada) that they are going out on a road trip and they will be able to eat all the candy they please and even shoot real guns. The kids, who haven’t seen their father in a while, quickly embrace the plan with no questions asked. The idea of going out on an adventure with him, no matter the time of day, is far more exciting than any question as to why now. There are rules to this trip, though: don’t talk to strangers and always stay in the car. 

The trip takes the first of many ominous turns when they are stopped at 3 a.m. in the middle of nowhere by a patrolman. After seeing what appears to be parasites crawling underneath the patrolman’s face, Malik knocks him down violently, leaving him unconscious. Malik has no choice but to reveal the true purpose of their trip: they are headed to a secret base in Nevada where a cure is being worked on to fight these microorganisms from outer space, and where the children will be safe while he embarks on a secret mission to kill these bugs. Oh, and kids…forget about Mom, she is one of them now. And of they go, each place they stop by to get something to eat or to meet their essential needs —diner, gas station, grocery store— imbued with a sense of menace as Benjamin Kracun’s camera hovers above them, sometimes at ceiling height, the sound of insects buzzing amplified alongside the film’s dread-filled score.

So far, so 1950s paranoid-science-fiction-alien-invasion film. But then director/writer Michael Pearce (Beast) shows his cards and we realize that those science-fictional elements were nothing more than a clever trick used to tell the story of a war veteran —and one of color, no less— suffering from PTSD and in full survival mode reclaiming that which was denied him: his children. It is at this point that a new character is introduced: Hatte, Malik’s parole officer (Octavia Spencer who elevates the character from mere plot device). Soon, we have a manhunt in our hands as federal agents go after Malik in fear that he may be putting his children’s lives in danger.

And therein lies my frustration with this otherwise compelling film. While I don’t mind having the rug pulled from underneath me and having my expectations turned, what Pearce pulls off here is short of deceitful. Yes, Pearce writing and direction and Ahmed’s performance in that first half suggest that there is more to this story than meets the eyes. But by overplaying those science-fictional components (the film’s title doesn’t help either), we are led to believe that they will play an integral role in the film’s climax. Instead, we are given a rote and almost by-the-numbers encounter with white supremacists and a hostage situation. They may ratchet up the suspense but by the end I was expecting another cheap trick.

Encounter does have one thing going for it and that’s Ahmed’s, Chauhan’s and Geddada’s committed, captivating and touching performances as father and sons. It’s a high wire act for all three as Ahmed switches his character’s paranoia on and off, both child actors convincingly playing off Malik’s mood swings as they try to figure out how to best respond to them as they manage their own confusion. Chauhan is especially remarkable as the script asks him to convey the kind of hero idolatry any boy feels towards his father, his own denial at seeing this hero crumble down right before him and his new role as protective big brother. Encounter is a better film than it should be thanks to this trio.

Encounter opens December 3 on theaters and begins streaming on Amazon Prime on December 10.