Part of the challenge when it comes to championing a movie is trying to hide the most savory details. As much as you want to entice someone to watch a film, you also want to keep certain elements a surprise. Of course, no amount of descriptions will replace seeing the images for the first time. Still, stating key plot turns will affect a viewer’s mindset going into a final product. Why, then, do I bring this up in the context of Encounter? Well, it is a movie whose most impressive feats lie deep within the narrative turns. So for those who want to go in completely blind, just know that it is very much worth your time. For those who want a little taste, allow me to dip into the pool…
At first glance, Joe Barton and Michael Pearce’s screenplay seems to focus on family dynamics with a science-fiction backdrop. Our main character is Malik (Riz Ahmed), an ex-convict who is certain that an alien threat is about to arrive. As someone living in fear of bugs that can have a parasitic relationship with humans, he does whatever he can to protect himself. This eventually results in him taking his two sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) on a road trip. Given that Malik does not get to see his sons frequently, he hopes that this trip will allow them to strengthen their bonds with him.
It’s a testament to Pearce – who also directs – that the movie does not bury its human element. For a solid half-hour, Encounter is a deeply engaging family drama with lively character dynamics. Given the high stakes in place, Malik sets various rules for Jay and Bobby to follow. As a result, both sons begin to take more responsibility for themselves and each other. Jay, in particular, receives the hefty task of keeping watch of Bobby while Malik goes to get supplies. Although Jay struggles to keep to his word, he learns the valuable lesson of being a more proactive individual. In fact, the longer the movie progresses, the more he takes things into his own hands.
On top of that, Pearce finds a lot of ways to create visual interest. There may not be many elaborate effects shots, but the bold color palette is great at establishing a heightened tone. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun relies on browns and greens throughout, allowing the movie to stray away from the real world. In all fairness, some of this visual interest manifests in the expressions of the actors. To the surprise of no one, Ahmed carries an intensity that doesn’t waver even in the calmer moments. Specifically, his perpetual bug-eyed gaze conveys every bit of stress Malik feels from the world around him.
However, Encounter really sets itself apart in terms of how it shifts between different genres. While it starts out as a sci-fi family drama, it slowly becomes a gripping character study on how fear can grow into a destructive force. Sure enough, it’s in this character study where the juiciest plot details lie. I won’t go into full detail, but it’s safe to say that it involves Malik becoming a big target for the police. From the police’s perspective, it seems as if Malik took Jay and Bobby on the trip against their will. It even gets to the point where his parole officer Hattie (Octavia Spencer) steps in to observe the situation. Barton and Pearce could have easily lost the initial plot thread, but they find a way to steer everything in the right direction.
It’s impressive just how much the filmmakers recontextualize the family drama with a few choice words. Partway through the film, a character warns Hattie that Malik is a “ticking time bomb”. And just like that, every subsequent scene with Malik, Jay, and Bobby has a sense of dread looming over it. Even though they are a family, the chance of something going awry increases as time goes on. In fact, the more we learn about Malik’s past, the more it acquits itself as a slow-burn thriller. At some point, the feeling of “I want these kids to be safe” starts to take precedence, and the movie puts all its efforts into maintaining that stress.
With all that in mind, it’s evident that Encounter refuses to carve just one niche for itself. One can imagine a version of this movie that commits to just one of its ideas, and I suppose that would be more palatable for a large audience. Still, the fact that Pearce manages to thread as many strands as he does is mightily impressive. I suspect that not everyone will be on the same wavelength as the filmmakers. But for myself, I cannot help but cherish the movie’s unpredictable blend of ideas. – Mark Tan
Encounter will release on December 10, 2021, on Amazon Prime Video.