Encounter is a paranoid tragedy masquerading as a science fiction thriller, featuring fine work from Riz Ahmed and a deeply human current running through its centre.
Much like Uncut Gems (2019), Prime Video’s latest, Encounter, starts by delving into the dark depths of the human body: more specifically, by observing a mosquito biting an arm before following its infectious journey into the body’s bloodstream. And like Uncut Gems’ introductory interior of a colonoscopy, it’s an uncomfortable, body-centric opening that grips you and knocks you off kilter at once. The similarities between the two films – in terms of plotline and messages at least – might end there, but that tense and twisted feeling never lets up in either. In Michael Pearce’s follow-up to his breakout 2017 psychological trip, Beast, you’re never quite sure what will come next, which can be to Encounter’s detriment at times but more often than not is what makes it so appealing. Billed as a sci-fi thriller, it takes unexpected turns along the way, and perhaps most surprisingly creates and maintains a sturdy emotional angle to bolster proceedings.
The human being stung by this mosquito is Malik Khan, played by an always magnetic and enthralling Riz Ahmed, fresh off his first Academy Award nomination for Sound of Metal (2019). Without spoiling too much of the intrigue in Encounter, Malik is a Marine Corps veteran desperate to reach his two young children and save them from a parasitic alien invasion. Encounter might not sound like it has the most original setup, but it’s what it does with it which makes it a compelling watch; the direction it takes isn’t always surprising, but it’s consistently engaging. Before long, Malik and his two sons set off on an odd sort of road trip, happy to be given time together as a family but nervous at what the outcome of it all might be.
The relationship between the three characters is special and, more importantly, believable. Ahmed anchors things as the caring but volatile father, whilst Lucian-River Chauhan as the oldest son, Jay, perfectly flits between an unnerving maturity beyond his years and a childhood innocence. As the youngest son, Bobby, Aditya Geddada gives more of the comic relief as well as a frightened vulnerability as events in Encounter inevitably spiral out of control. Pearce, on directorial as well as co-writing duties with Joe Barton (The Ritual, Giri/Haji), sometimes allows the script to become heavy-handed as it attempts to juggle various themes and plot directions, but for the most part he maintains a solid course throughout. There are silly moments – a bizarre shootout in an abandoned town is unwarranted – yet Pearce and Barton manage to right things quickly, allowing Encounter to continue its tragic path against its supposed sci-fi backdrop.
Encounter is at its most impressive when it follows this direction of tragedy, and more specifically in its handling of themes such as mental health problems amongst war vets. Again, the script is not always steady in its angle and in fact most impressive is Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography. It finds the alien in our everyday world, from skin-crawling shots of creeping insects to uncomfortable closeups of eyes and veins. Kracun was DOP on Beast and more recently on the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman (2020), in which he similarly found the unnerving and uncomfortable in everyday life. Encounter is all vast expanses and lumpy landscapes, shot on our world but just as easily depicting another planet; it’s an indication of what it might be like for a returning war vet as they return home from conflict, back to a world which is normal to us but wholly incomprehensible and civilian to them. Kracun even manages to find the supernatural in a helicopter, its beaming spotlight framing it like a spaceship and giving a Spielbergian feel to proceedings, but much, much darker. Pearce’s direction allows Kracun’s cinematography to really come to life in Encounter, with the former’s quietly persistent style ensuring this paranoid tale takes flight in a seemingly alien world.
It’s a shame when other aspects of Encounter don’t work: the music is an uncomfortable blend of overbearing instrumentals and ill-fitting popular songs. Certain aspects like this and the sometimes heavy-handed approach to proceedings mean Encounter can pale in comparison to other films which deal with war vets and their mental health, such as the remarkably affecting Leave No Trace (2018). And yet, Encounter still manages to push enough off the right buttons, sci-fi or otherwise. Much like Ahmed’s Malik, there is an intrigue to the film bubbling under the surface, a feeling that something isn’t quite right as the tragedy unfurls more and more. Go into it as blind as possible and you will be seriously emotionally moved by the ending whilst simultaneously being twisted and turned up, down and side to side along the way. Encounter might be rough around the edges, but it has a freshness to it which should be celebrated.
Amazon Studios will release Encounter in theaters December 3rd, 2021 and on Prime Video December 10th, 2021.
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