Written and Directed by Michael Pearce.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Lucian-River Chauhan, Rory Cochrane, Janina Gavankar, Keith Szarabajka, Shane McRae, and Aditya Geddada.
Two brothers embark on a journey with their father, who is trying to protect them from an alien threat.
It’s hard to imagine anyone genuinely being surprised by what’s actually going on in Michael Pearce’s Encounter. Fortunately, some of the cards are revealed early enough, although that only leads to another problem; the rest of the story has nowhere to go but off the rails.
Riz Ahmed is Malik Khan, a military soldier returning home unannounced to evacuate his children Jay and Bobby (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada, respectively) in preparations for an alien invasion secretly already underway. Worse, their mom and her new boyfriend seem to have been infected by this parasitic host that takes control of the body. The plan is to take a road trip to Nevada, where a sanctuary space is under construction.
However, whether aliens exist or not is decidedly not the point to Encounter, which simultaneously sees the reliably exceptional Riz Ahmed as a sensitive and caring father as he makes up for lost time bonding with his children on the road, and a short fuse occasionally turning his anger and rage toward his boys. Malik will not win any father of the year awards, but he is an intriguing character played with a combination of unpredictable intensity and pure tenderness by Riz Ahmed. Equally worthy of praise are the child actors, wielding wildly different personalities from serious to silly, often fighting one another while trying to grasp the current situation and what their father is facing emotionally and mentally.
Whether one chooses to believe Malik or dismisses claims as a crazy person, it’s evident that his time serving his country in war as a decorated soldier has taken its toll and brought on mental instability. Working with his parole officer Haddie (Octavia Spencer taking on a thankless role), who catches on to the disappearance and senses that something is not right, Special Agent Shephard West (Rory Cochrane) is convinced that Malik is a danger to himself and his family. As a result, Haddie begins to contemplate if she had a lapse in character judgment despite decades on the job. None of it is particularly engaging, mainly because the narrative tricks were transparent five minutes into the film. If the point of Encounter is to play games with its audience and keep them guessing, it’s a massive failure, largely predictable from plot point to plot point. If the point is a compelling drama, it’s also a failure due to its sheer ridiculousness.
As Malik continues to endanger his children, sometimes assaulting others on the way (including an embarrassingly cliché sequence involving a robbery), he balances his bad behavior out by encouraging Jay to look after and take care of Bobby. Jay himself seems conflicted on whether he should keep maturing and step up to the plate or drop back down to sibling arguments. If the film makes any wise choices, the longer it goes on, it’s shifting some focus to Jay and his processing of these altering dynamics. The ultimate question here is who should be taking care of who.
The real problem is that for as grounded in reality, nearly all this is, it’s utterly preposterous with its narrative flow hinging on characters conveniently being out of the loop, not asking sensible questions anyone would ask, or straight-up implausible events. Drama is manipulated and manufactured at every turn, cranking up the amount of action there is to be found here while also dragging the story deeper into the mud. At one point, a shootout unbelievably breaks out. Elsewhere, acts of violence are given a visceral visual emphasis that would suggest more significant importance, only to mean nothing. Meanwhile, Riz Ahmed shouts his way through every scene, progressively becoming more unhinged as we hope the government can successfully intervene.
The concept of Encounter is brilliant, and the performances are admittedly investing to a degree (watching Riz Ahmed repeatedly perform the challenging task of switching gears between soft and explosive is gripping), but Michael Pearce explores it with disjointed reckless abandonment undercutting anything potentially interesting there is to say.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com