Runtime: 108 Minutes
Director: Michael Pearce
Writer(s): Michael Pearce, Joe Barton
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Octavia Spencer, Lucian-River Chauhan, Janina Gavankar
Director Michael Pearce’s sophomore effort, “Encounter” (2021), creates an initially engaging sci-fi story that eventually takes a more personal turn that showcases lasting scars of trauma.
The film follows a pair of young brothers who end up going on a journey with their distant father Malik (Riz Ahmed) as he tries to protect them from an alien force that has come to Earth. Although we’ve seen plenty of alien invasion stories over the past few years, Pearce creates a visually intriguing invasion that evokes the paranoia of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. With these aliens supposedly being micro-organisms that manipulate their hosts to become more aggressive, really anyone can be infected creating this sense of paranoia that drives each interaction in the first third of the film. Also, with these aliens being transferred through insects, Pearce creates some creepy visuals of bugs being everywhere. If you never thought bugs looked alien-like before, you will after seeing how Pearce shows them here.
While Pearce does a nice job establishing the film’s sci-fi elements, there could’ve been more paranoia or lore-building simply to make this “alien invasion” more believable. Most of the time, Malik is the only one freaking out about this invasion and there’s a fair reason behind that. However, it’s easy to go through the first third of the film skeptical of this alien invasion because there isn’t enough to it to be believable, and it makes the big turn this film has in its story not as shocking or wild as it could’ve been.
However, that doesn’t mean that “Encounter’s” big story turn isn’t strong and nicely shifts the story from being a paranoia filled alien invasion to a personal story of mental scars. Upon initially meeting Malik, it’s easy to see him as a protective, caring, and charismatic father trying to rebuild his relationship with his two sons. When we see the truth behind this alien threat though, it changes your perspective on his actions and intentions. The sense of comfortability you initially feel with him turns into paranoia and concern with every decision he makes. His actions reflect his scary determination to keep him and his sons on this journey and with how this building resistance views Malik, you’re left on edge with how things will end.
Malik’s mental issues and scars from being in war don’t make him seen as psychotic though and a lot of the charismatic and protective qualities that make Malik initially likeable still remain. Even as Malik’s aggression and paranoia start to consume him deeper, there are still shreds of good in him that make you still care about him, and Ahmed’s performance greatly influences that. He balances the genuine lovingness and deep-seeded trauma that swirls within Malik incredibly well and adds another deeply emotional performance to his already excellent portfolio of performances. Ahmed gives Malik the kind of complexity he deserves and the story from Pearce and Joe Barton create an interesting depiction and story surrounding mental health.
Although the building resistance to Malik’s actions believe that he’s too far gone and possibly even reached “family annihilator” status, they’re always able to show some shreds of him still being a good-hearted protector. There’s no doubt that Malik’s actions aren’t good and put people he loves, as well as himself, in danger, but it’s never depicted in a way that makes him completely villainous or evil, but rather misguided and in need of help. It’s a strong dive into different outside views of someone struggling with their mental health and the ending involving Malik’s older son Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) leaves you on edge and pulls at your heartstrings with the level of support and love that Jay shows Malik in a tough time. It’s that kind of unyielding love that should always be shown in supporting those in dire need of help, minus maybe the situation shown, and leaves an impactful feeling.
“Encounter’s” shape-shifting story and Ahmed’s stand out performance prevail in making it a hard-hitting story of persisting trauma and a meaningful look into mental health support.