British writer-director Michael Pearce kept audiences guessing with his intriguing 2017 debut Beast and his follow-up is laced with just as much ambiguity. Co-written with Giri/Haji screenwriter Joe Barton and starring Riz Ahmed, Encounter incorporates elements of sci-fi creature feature lifted from the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Faculty. Mostly, though, it functions as a character-driven, psychological journey. A seriously watchable one, too.
It all centres on a dad with a mission to save his family from a worldwide parasitic invasion. A decorated Marine, who has served ten tours for his country, Malik Khan (Ahmed) is convinced that non-terrestrial micro-organisms have covertly arrived on Earth and are slowly infecting the populace. Malik kidnaps his two young sons, Jay and Bobby, from his estranged wife, who may or may not be infected. Pearce’s use of a muted colour scheme and restrained CGI help present the alien insects to subtle yet shuddering effect.
As the three musketeers embark on a cross-country road trip to find the safety of a military base, tense obstacles and dangerous situations slow them down. Rarely does it lose its nervy pace, though, as new truths are revealed about Malik’s service history and mental state that puts everything into question.
Ahmed is in his element as this anxious father who can switch between doting dad and petrifying patriarch with impressive ease. His trademark wide eyes often draw you into his humanity even when his edgy demeanour is designed to discomfort. He bolstered by an always reliable Octavia Spencer as a parole officer, as well as child actors Lucien-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada. The young’uns deliver just the right level of confidence and vulnerability to play Malik’s increasingly concerned kids who want to believe their dad is a hero.
Encounter has a whole lot of heart and takes a sensitive approach to PTSD that is underscored by a cultural tension that comes to a head in its high-octane, action-packed final act. Ending with an iconic image, Pearce shows both a visual and thematic appreciation for genre films in all sorts of endearing and enigmatic ways. Like his fired-up man on a mission here, he’s going places.
Out in cinemas Dec 3 and on Amazon Prime Dec 10.