Co-written and directed by Michael Pearce.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane, Janina Gavankar, Lucian-River Chauhan, and Aditya Geddada.
Two brothers embark on a journey with their father, who is trying to protect them from an alien threat.
Beast director Michael Pearce impressively scales-up for his sophomore feature, delivering another tricksy, subversive genre film – in this case a sad, strange family drama with a sci-fi fringe.
Malik Khan is a Marine (Riz Ahmed) who sneaks into the home of his estranged wife (Janina Gavankar) to rescue his two young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), from an impending extraterrestrial threat.
Non-terrestrial micro-organisms, to be precise, which have hitched a ride to Earth on an asteroid and are now systematically infecting the human race, parasitically using them as hosts. With his wife and her new husband already infected, Malik whisks his two sons away on a road trip in an attempt to escape the surging invasion.
By design, Encounter feels very much like several different types of film smashed together, slaloming between Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque sci-fi horror, genuinely heart-warming family drama, and even vaguely Lynchian neo-noir later on.
As much as the film’s marketing has obfuscated its central conceit, Pearce seems much less interested in keeping the lid on it any longer than is necessary, given that the cat’s more-or-less out of the bag by the end of act one. But to be vague, the overall picture is far from as initially presented, and Malik’s trip with his sons – which, any way you cut it, is kidnapping – has especially alarming implications for those who know Malik’s life story.
While early portions of the film imply a Kafkaesque nightmare in which the bug-averse Malik tries to steer himself and his sons away from enslavement, Encounter is really more strictly concerned with the love between a father and his children, who over the course of the road trip come to understand the truth of their father’s surreptitious missions away.
This family dynamic is easily the strongest aspect of the film and so sensibly the most prominent part. Riz Ahmed adds another multi-faceted role to his fast-growing cachet, playing a loving father tortured by a traumatic past no matter his sins. His oft-inappropriate banter with his screen sons proves amusingly irreverent, his younger co-stars Chauhan and Geddada – both newcomers to the industry – impressively holding their own against such a tenacious, intense performer.
Octavia Spencer also shows up in a supporting capacity as Hattie, a figure from Malik’s past who attempts to mediate between him and the authorities, who are growingly increasingly concerned that Malik’s journey may have less-benevolent intentions. It’s hardly a prime-rib role for an actor of Spencer’s talents, but she nevertheless gives it her all as a woman hoping against hope that she hasn’t misjudged Malik.
There’s a swelling atmosphere leaking from every pore of Pearce’s movie, largely courtesy of the gorgeous work by DP Benjamin Kracun, who lensed Pearce’s debut and, more recently, Promising Young Woman.
Between the sparingly deployed-yet-awe-striking visual effects sequences and the eye-watering scenery of both Northern California and Nevada, it’s a ravishing piece from start to finish. Furthermore, Pearce’s impressive handling of the sporadic action beats makes it clear he’s capable of handling a more overt, card-carrying genre film in the future. Would it surprise anyone if Marvel Studios came a-knocking soon enough?
The visuals are tethered to some willfully skin-crawling sound design, a crackerjack score from the great Jed Kurzel, and some hilariously diverse musical choices per Malik and his sons’ differing choices of radio station. This is a film that somehow encompasses needle-drops ranging from Selena Gomez to Naughty by Nature, Phil Collins, and, finally, Judas Priest.
Though it’s easy to see how some might be disappointed with how the film splits the difference between genres – and the marketing will be in large part to blame for this – for those prepared to soak in its enigmatic story and Ahmed’s exceptional work, a rewarding sit lies ahead.
An entertainingly slippery genre-bender about fatherhood and other things best not spoiled, Encounter serves primarily as a showcase for director Michael Pearce and his ever-reliable leading man Riz Ahmed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.