Should we anticipate a dystopian future where humanity has all but bowed down to the threat of uncertainty? Perhaps, but not to the same degree fiction appears to provoke. Around this same time last year, we had Greenland to contend with, displaying narrow-minded escapes from raining meteors. This time around, the enemy threat is a combination of mild mental anguish and above-average insects, while a dad races against time toward parts unknown. In Michael Pearce’s Encounter, we see mere existence placed under the microscope as desperation sets in for a family looking to feel complete once more.
And in the mind of former Marine Corps specialist Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal), that despair has manifested into a meager road trip with few stops and little room for error. Considering how adept these space insects are at carrying/spreading parasitic, mind-altering bacteria, Malik has no tolerance for hiccups. Easier said than done, with his two sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddaya) riding shotgun and disrupting his focus. Their biggest reason for the cross-country trek, reuniting with estranged wife Piya (Janina Gavankar), who may have already been infected. And if so, pass along a cure while most opportune.
That much would be alright with what Pearce (Beast) and co-writer Joe Barton (My Days of Mercy) allow themselves to work with. But then step deeper into Malik’s psychoanalysis, and he’s far more troubled than his snap-decision demeanor lets on. He kidnapped his sons, prompting the attention of his parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer), and the urgency of local authorities. Stone-cold Detective West (Rory Cochrane) initiates a regional manhunt before Malik’s erratic behavior unravels him further. Like he could be more unruly now, his diagnoses were never sparkling after his tours.
What does make both halves enjoyably cohesive is square on Ahmed’s layered portrayal. Gracefully, concerningly touching on the difficulties of a mental illness, hidden or otherwise. All you see on the surface is fear, that quick thinking error, acting on instinct. Sensing Malik’s decline whilst on the road is greatly nuanced to reach the back of one’s mind. His grasp on the material is expert-level, leaving the audience to ponder the very truthfulness of this alien threat. A lush CG-heavy intro mirroring any given premium cable invasion ensures it’s a real invasion birthed by a meteorite crash, festering on a biological level. It rears its head by the latter half in Riz’s behavioral patterns worsening, resorting to uncharacteristic bouts of violence.
When he does keep his cool, it brings little solace to anyone around him. The presence of one too many judgmental voices muddles Pearce’s minimalist sci-fi pragmatism a tad, disrupting its focus. At least, until the ending reels us back. While Spencer’s unique voice of reason adds clarity and neutrality in staying a step ahead of the police to protect Malik, her near-lack of timing causes her to stick out slightly. She does cooperate with authorities, moving on her separate path to track down the fugitive, granting her a beat or two to play both snide and caring. Cochrane’s detective character handles levelheadedness a little more effectively, knowing when to tap the brakes just as the script hits a sharper gear and nearly moves out of hand.
Perhaps it does, at times. Place Ahmed out in favor of any other actor, and it would be much less grounded. Pearce and Barton make an easy feat out of needless escalation, as they tiptoe away from the mere alien story, and land into that territory of raw human understanding. Malik’s perception shows experience and wisdom amid his crisis, nothing his sons can fathom, boggled by confusion. Chauhan and Geddada are plenty convincing, their characters instructed to grow up on the fly, which leads to a plethora of father-child conflicts on those desert roads. Of the two, older brother Jay appears to catch on to the idea of kidnapping as a very real flaw in his dad’s mind, with Chauhan’s portrayal of maturity proving a significant weapon over the unfurling thread of panic.
With visuals keenly captured by DP Benjamin Kračun (Promising Young Woman), a bleak palette frames a tense, fluid scenario bordering on the line between real life and fictitious circumstances. That alone is not enough for Encounter to maintain any manner of consistency with its duality of themes. Pearce ensures there’s still enough to enjoy under its casting, allowing me to overlook nearly all its stumbles. Ahmed is a fine enough case study for a conflicted individual rattled by the world, shook by his mental-emotional distress. I probably won’t be the only person who’d have preferred more of the sci-fi angle, making the invisible nefariousness more of a danger. What eventually plays out as an at-home human abduction tale here is enough to stay engaged, peering deeper inside to await that next move. Nothing like anticipated, but no less essential for lessening the stigma. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
Encounter arrives in select theaters December 3, Prime Video December 10; rated R for language and some violence; 108 minutes.