Encounter will release in limited theaters on Dec. 3, and on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 10.
A tense family drama with the trappings of a body snatchers story, Encounter follows decorated marine Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) on a mission to protect his two young sons. But as Malik’s reliability becomes increasingly questionable, the film also loses focus and drags on far too long.
Encounter opens with a meteorite hit followed by gruesome footage of an insectile ecosystem filled with swarms and bugs ripping each other apart before zooming in on a mosquito biting a human and infecting them with a tardigrade, a species capable of surviving the vacuum of space. Covering himself with bug spray and constantly checking his eyes for signs of infection, Malik is trying to become an expert in extraterrestrial microorganisms, which he believes may have already taken over the minds of half the earth’s population. With his estranged wife Piya (Janina Gavankar) seemingly sick and acting strange, Malik shows up to rescue his young sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada).
Michael Pearce’s direction is far more impressive than his script, which is co-written with Joe Barton. The constant ominous focus on insects persists through the first act, after which the film abandons its central mystery and instead slides into tired tropes and extremely blunt messaging about the treatment of veterans and violence against people of color. Yet the locations at which Encounter is filmed are spectacular, from California roads cutting through seemingly endless desert to an abandoned mining town where Malik’s kids play in half-built ruins. By showing places where it looks like civilization has already collapsed or never even existed, it’s easy to feel unsure of the state of the world. The discordant music and abrupt shifts in volume or tone help add to the unease
Ahmed does an excellent job with a tough role, an erratic force who alternates between joking with Jay about the muscles he grew in the two years when Malik was on a “secret mission” to yelling that it’s time for the 10-year-old to grow up and take care of his little brother. Chauhan and Geddada do a remarkable job themselves, with Geddada embodying the equally erratic nature of a young child while Chauhan tries hard to meet the wild expectations of the father he idolizes. However, the maturity and togetherness of each character feels driven by the necessities of the plot, making the shifts feel too convenient and abrupt.
The film would arguably be much better if it entirely focused on the perspectives of these characters, leaving the other forces moving around them unexplained and up to us to imagine until they are directly confronting the protagonists. There’s really nothing gained from looking behind the scenes at the hunt for Malik led by overly aggressive FBI agents or a largely wasted performance by Octavia Spencer as Hattie, a kindly parole officer trying to protect him. For all her talk about being a good judge of character who is potentially capable of diffusing a volatile situation, Hattie basically does nothing the entire film besides provide exposition that’s already fairly obvious.
Even more unnecessary are the segments devoted to Malik’s run-ins with Three Percenters. The anti-government extremists feel less like characters and more like a hazard of the untamed terrain Malik and his sons are traveling through, equivalent to the threat of a flat tire on rocky terrain. The result is that the inevitable violent conflict between them feels gratuitous, failing to add anything to the plot or the themes the film is trying to evoke. It is, however, beautifully done, playing with sound and visuals as Malik focuses on his breathing between firing shots where the outcome is obscured by clouds of sand and dust.