A glowing asteroid hurtles toward Earth in the night sky. It sparks a chain reaction involving debris-devouring woodland insects, hungry mosquitos, and – as viewed through a microscopic lens – a microbe that burrows its way through a human host’s bloodstream before exploding all of its matter inside.
Encounter’s opening shot is a late contender for the most visually striking of the year. It may also be one of the most misleading.
Indeed, this entomophobe’s worst nightmare implies that an extraterrestrial body horror movie in the shape of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing lies ahead. Yet, the sci-fi and the scares soon make way for an ambitious and disorienting mish-mash of nocturnal road thriller, coming-of-age film, and psychological drama informed by the War on Terror.
Arriving on Amazon Prime Video on December 10, Encounter stars Riz Ahmed (once again nailing an American accent) as Malik Khan, a troubled former Special Forces Marine and absent father convinced at least half the population has been infected by “non-terrestrial microorganisms.” He spends his days spraying himself from head to toe in bug repellent, inspecting any close contact’s eyes for signs of alien life, and poring over the intelligence files he believes is proof of a government cover-up.
It’s a premise that may seem familiar to the few who saw William Friedkin’s Bug. The claustrophobic 2006 horror follows Michael Shannon’s discharged soldier, who claims to have been the test subject for a biological experiment that infested both his hotel room and entire body. In Encounter, there is a similar scene where Malik spots several creepy crawlies bursting out of his grimy motel walls.
However, while Bug kept audiences guessing about its protagonist’s mental state, director Michael Pearce (2017’s underrated Beast) and co-writer Joe Barton (iBoy, The Ritual) makes things pretty clear early on. Malik abducts his two children, Bobby (Aditya Geddada) and Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan), in the middle of the night for a “rescue mission” to an operational base in the Arizona desert. He leaves his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) and her new husband (Rory Cochrane), who he disdains, tied up in the garage.
Both kids are initially excited about seeing their dad for the first time in two years, along with his promise of no strict bedtimes and unlimited sweets. But soon, they begin to suspect that all the talk of mainstream media blackouts and aliens invisible to the naked eye are just a figment of their father’s disturbed imagination.
Despite the lack of ambiguity, Encounter still manages to sustain the tension during this impromptu road trip, aided by Jed Kurzel’s ominous, skin-crawling score and Benjamin Kracun’s atmospheric, shadowy lensing of the isolated landscapes. A late-night deserted highway run-in with an over vigilant state trooper, for example, is genuine edge-of-your-seat entertainment, allowing Ahmed to echo the brooding menace of his Emmy-winning turn in The Night Of. Then, there’s the invasion Malik himself instigates, a breaking-and-entering that turns violent, and thanks to a burst of Phil Collins, it draws an unexpected parallel with American Psycho.
While Malik appears to care deeply for his sons, his gun-toting tendencies and paranoia induced by serving ten tours in combat leave you constantly on edge about his endgame. Could he really turn out to be the “family annihilator” that those on his trail, including Octavia Spencer (who is slightly wasted here as a sympathetic parole officer), suggest?
It’s the fate of those two boys, rather than the entire world, that the movie ultimately centers its narrative around. Pearce, who won a BAFTA with his similarly unnerving debut, drew upon the “unbreakable loving bond” he developed with his father and younger brother during various crises growing up.
Pearce’s focus on the bond of family shines through the charming interactions between the on-screen trio. See Malik’s exasperation at Bobby’s love for Barbra Streisand and Selena Gomez, which provides some much-needed light relief. Geddada and Chauhan’s naturalistic performances are also refreshingly free of the usual stage-school theatrics. The latter actor is particularly impressive as a kid forced to deal with losing his wide-eyed innocence virtually overnight.
But having left you so invested in their cross-state trek, Encounter then disappointingly fumbles its denouement, leaning into the corny Hollywood tropes that most of its (somewhat overlong) 109 minutes have so skilfully swerved. Still, if “it’s the journey, not the destination” is your mantra, then this intriguing genre-crossing pic is worth going along with for the ride.
Encounter is now playing in theaters. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on December 10.