Director: Michael Pearce
Writers: Joe Barton, Michael Pearce
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Rory Cochrane, Lucian-River Chauhan, Aditya Geddada
Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun
Editor: Maya Maffioli
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
What would the apocalypse look like through the eyes of children? How can a parent hope to provide shelter when the world is on fire? Encounter is a tense family drama, a taut survival thriller that follows the 'us against the world' template, just not in the way you'd expect. The film, which begins with news of an alien invasion, expertly builds moments of suspense, frequently leaving audiences in doubt over whether they can trust what they've just seen as recurring new information keeps recasting the film in a new light. All of it is anchored by a fantastic performance by Academy Award-nominated actor Riz Ahmed, a man firm in his convictions even as the rest of the world tries to convince him to leave room for error.
The film follows Malik Khan (Ahmed) a 38-year-old Marine Corps veteran on deployment. Malik has done enough research to conclude that alien parasites, capable of manipulating their host's behaviour, have invaded earth, infected the insect population and are on their way to taking over humans. His morning routine includes compulsively spraying himself with insect repellent and checking his eyes for signs of infection. One night, he breaks into the home of his estranged wife so he can take their two young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), to a secure base where they can wait out the invasion. What follows is a tense road trip, with the tension not so much derived from the looming alien threat but from the reality of the situation. Malik is rescuing the boys, sure, but he's also kidnapping them.
The film is great at milking the anxiety of the trio's fraught journey. When a cop asks Malik to pull over in the middle of the night, it creates immediate tension. The scene not only mines fear from this confrontation on a racial level (the cop aggressor is white, Malik is clearly not) but on a species level (is the cop even human anymore?) and even on a psychological level (will the flashing lights of the cop car and the inherent anxiety of the situation trigger Malik's PTSD?). Over the course of the fim, the 'encounter' of the title becomes less about mankind's encounter with alien parasites and more about Malik's impending encounter with law enforcement out to arrest him.
For an apocalyptic alien invasion movie, Encounter works hard to subvert all the tropes of the genre, which works in its favour by the end. Through the kidnapping scene, the film establishes Malik's dubious morality early on, unlike other end-of-the-world movies in which the protagonist is resolutely heroic. When he teaches Jay to drive and both young kids to shoot, it's clear that the film isn't buying his justification of wanting to teach them survival skills, careful to depict him as an irresponsible parent for putting his kids in harm's way. It feels like a cinematic counter to apocalyptic narratives in which scrappy kids join the fight with a maturity beyond their years. A brief scene of Jay and Bobby goofing around, in the way only kids can, in Malik's absence only drives home the point. And there's a reason why the opening sequence, which depicts insects turning against each other under the influence of the parasite, seems so perfunctory.
Encounter morphs into a very different movie by its end, a transition that's handled fluidly, keeping the film as thrilling and inventive as any in recent times.
Recommendation in collaboration with Amazon Prime Video