Every morning, Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) wakes up, checks his eyes for blemishes, then sprays his entire body with bug spray. The earth has been invaded by parasitic microscopic organisms from space, and he’s one of the few humans not infected. Encounter, Michael Pearce’s ham-fisted, allegorical follow-up to off-kilter romance Beast, is a science fiction road-trip movie aspiring to be a Steven Spielberg project. But it relies less on grounded poignancy, and more on emotional manipulation.
Malik is an army veteran. It’s been two years since he’s seen his sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). They live on a farm with their mother Piya (Janina Gavankar) and her new spouse Lance (Shane McRae). Each day, the boys devour letters sent by their father wherein he tells them about his daily missions fighting aliens. His stories trickle down to Jay, in particular, who spends his days drawing space monsters. They believe he’s a hero. And despite his long absence, when he returns in the middle of the night asking them to go on an adventure, they cannot resist. So Malik kidnaps his sons.
On the wavelength of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Encounter concerns a troubled, absent father trying to protect his sons while ultimately succumbing to his own dogmatisms. Malik genuinely loves his boys, and wholeheartedly believes he’s doing the right thing to protect them. His easy rapport with them charms. That happens partially because of the amiable dialogue in Pearce and Joe Barton’s initially simple script. It also occurs because of this trio of actors: Sweetness naturally emanates from Ahmed, which at this point in his career shouldn’t be much of a surprise, and Geddada and Chauhan settle into a natural relationship with their screen dad. They transcend beyond a childlike performance by being so knowing. Pearce uses plenty of close-ups, and on each cut to either Geddada or Chauhan, the internal machinations of their characters — fear, longing, happiness, and confusion — arrive without a hint of artifice.
The rub, nevertheless, comes when Malik’s absence worries his parole officer Hattie (played by an underused, underwritten Octavia Spencer). Hattie informs the authorities only for them to believe Malik is an annihilator: A vengeful father soon to execute his sons and himself. As opposed to the roadtrip portions, the dramatic tension of Malik’s psychology, the violence he’s capable of under the right circumstances, is thin. The subplot relies too heavily on stereotypes of soldiers suffering from PTSD for dramatic effect.
Pearce ratchets up seemingly mundane conflicts with a houseless woman, a pesky highway patrolman, and a gas station attendant — suggesting they’re all infected — for heightened frights. Sound is used in a similar fashion. The amplified scattering of bugs fashions unnerving set pieces in quaint diners and shabby hotels. We see this world first through the eyes of the single-minded Malik, then through the sons who adore him, and in response sees as he sees the world. Packed within their sights are visually splendid scenes: Malik uncontrollably speeding his truck down an empty road, swerving, seemingly against gravity. In this liminal space, where the earth is controlled by microscopic invaders, where the headlights of Malik’s truck against the dark desert sky form an otherworldly effect, is where the mystery of Encounter casts its deepest spell.
But Pearce cannot maintain that alluring balance. Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun’s once heavenly sun-soaked composition shifts to orange sand-smeared landscapes. Malik ventures too far. He begins to unravel by succumbing to flights of anger. He also hurts the father of two gun-toting yahoos, and they hunt him across the country for a slice of revenge. The desolate, but picturesque terrain shifts to an abandoned town. The collapsed concrete buildings, the dusty air and barren streets overbearingly make visual nods to the war in the Middle East.
Encounter tries to become a parable for xenophobia and the wars that have dominated the American political landscape for nearly two decades (really, even more). It’s odd, however, that both children are named Bobby and Jay. Maybe their Westernized names are a sign of assimilation on the part of Malik, especially since he’s in the army. But that feeling of assimilation doesn’t worm into the primary text. It instead requires the audience to infer its intent by bringing their own cultural literacy to the movie. There’s nearly a sense that Encounter began as a film written for an all-white cast, then changed course once Ahmed became attached, but was never re-written to fit the color-blind casting with the new themes that arose from it. The parable component is all too confusing to land its intended emotional blow.
As is the climax, wherein he and his boys are hunted by federal agents. Without spoiling too much, their lives more than come under grave danger. Brown people are held at gunpoint by itchy trigger finger white folks. It’s a setup designed for surface-level tension. While there are the political connotations that drive the scene, it strains to make Malik a sympathetic figure. An avenue does exist where audiences would pity him in this situation, but Pearce’s graceless parable hits the message too hard on the head. If Pearce weren’t so heavy-handed, if were just self-aware enough to know how to connect character with metaphor, then Encounter, a flawed sci-fi flick with a simple premise, could be a great adventure fit for the stars.
Encounter is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.