Written by Anna Harrison
Encounter is slippery. It defies easy definition and weaves between genres, though it starts firmly as your average sci-fi thriller, one which sees ex-Marine Malik Kahn (Riz Ahmed) spying a meteor flash through the night sky as it hurtles towards Earth. Upon landing, a wordless montage shows something infecting the insects of our world which in turn infect the humans they bite, evoking memories of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Malik, when he pieces together the information, rushes to save his sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), a rescue made all the more frantic after the viewers see Malik’s ex-wife, Piya (Janina Gavankar), get bitten by a mosquito and then later rush to the bathroom to vomit during dinner.
The kids think little of this as Malik frames it all as a game and tells them they are going on a road trip; he’s been away for two years, and in the interim has become all the more heroic in his sons’ eyes, especially as they deal with new step-dad, Dylan (Misha Collins). This is a new, grownup adventure, one that gives the boys a sense of self-importance as they set out for a mysterious base Malik knows from his Marine days. Like I said, average sci-fi thriller: father saves his sons from imminent threat, tries to whisk them off to safety, and they all attempt to overcome their differences on the trip there, though Pearce and fellow writer Joe Barton weave in social commentary as well as Malik and his children flee across the lonely desert.
Then, slowly, another layer to the movie unfurls, until all at once Octavia Spencer’s Hattie, whose role can’t be revealed without spoiling the movie, reveals another side of director Michael Pearce’s movie. The perspective shifts from Malik to those outside him, and as we begin to see the bigger picture, we start to see our protagonists’ flaws and unreliable narration. The anxiety the first third of the film built switches to different sources, but never goes away; in fact, gets only doubled as we start to see Malik as filtered through his sons’ eyes.
Ahmed, as usual, turns in an excellent performance, his every act oozing love for his children while teetering on the edge of reason, and he once again proves his versatility and charisma as a performer. Yet the real stars of the film are Chauhan and Geddada as Malik’s sons, the elder Chauhan in particular; the performances that Pearce coaxes out of his child actors are nothing less than remarkable. Jay watches his father with increasing worry, gradually adopting the mantle of protector as his father grapples with his own demons, and Chauhan displays subtlety and nuance that many actors far beyond his years fail to grasp.
Encounter falters when it moves the focus away from Malik, and while Octavia Spencer is always welcome, her plot could be excised with minimal retooling and just a little more faith in the audience’s ability to suss out the truth; its genre-hopping also hinders the film at times and the gear shifts aren’t as smooth as they could be, though it’s hard to fault a film that’s so ambitious in its tone and scope, even if it does stumble. By the time the film reaches its conclusion, the tears (or at least mine) feel well-earned; it’s an audacious sophomore feature from Pearce and quite worth a bit of patience.