Blending science-fiction with the classic American road movie, Michael Pearce returns with his sophomore feature, Encounter. Pearce gleaned a wealth of attention from audiences and critics alike following his independent debut feature, Beast, an intense, psychological thriller come romance starring Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. Encounter is a beast of an entirely different nature: strikingly ambitious and aided by a much bigger budget. However, despite this change of pace, Pearce achieves the same expertly crafted balance between genre and character that made Beast so enticing.
Set on the west coast of America, Encounter follows ex-marine veteran Malik Khan (Riz Ahmed) as he struggles to save his two young children from a parasitic alien invasion. We meet Kahn in a dingy hotel room; he sprays his body with insect repellent as he watches scenes of unrest play out on the news. Believing his ex-wife and her new husband have fallen victim to the insect-like alien species which use human bodies as hosts, Malik travels to California to kidnap his two estranged sons: ten-year-old Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and eight-year-old Bobby (Aditya Geddada). The trip to safety is a rare adventure for the kids: they get to eat sweets, play games, muck about with Dad and stay up late. However, their complete adoration for Malik soon gives way to fear and suspicion, leading their blissful journey down a sinister path.
As with Beast, Pearce approaches his narrative with a non-linear understanding of good and evil. He once again showcases his knack for exploring the duality of his characters: we’re never quite sure who we can trust or what’s motivating their behaviour. Throughout Encounter, we see Malik in some very joyful scenes, but we also see him make some morally questionable decisions. With his performance, Ahmed explores those shades of grey triumphantly, delicately exploring the darker elements to Malik while remaining utterly sympathetic to his audience. As ever, he infuses his usual accomplished vision to the project, elevating his character beyond the constraints of science-fiction. He excels as both a tough, unrelenting marine and as a soft, stricken father battling the impossible to get his kids to safety. He’s matched by two magnetic young actors, who, respectively, add humour, anxiety and a sense of childhood wonder into the mix. Fresh-faced Chauhan and Geddada work to outplay Ahmed at his own game, delivering performances that lend the narrative its potent emotional pull.
Encounter achieves an essence of individuality from your usual science-fiction fodder, which comes about from its unique central perspective. We don’t typically get to see these narratives with minority characters at their core. So, in crafting his story around Malik and his boys, Pearce is able to use the genre’s fantastical themes to explore real-world issues. With most scenes playing out within the family’s small car, ambiguity begins to surround the alien invasion playing out in the outside world. As such, it’s impossible to pinpoint where the danger will come from. The more Pearce develops upon this idea, the more we realise how the dystopian world on-screen reflects our own reality. For example: does law enforcement treat Malik with hostility due to parasitic alien control or racial prejudice? Questions such as this litter the film in intricate detail, leaving us on the edge of our seats as we grapple to understand precisely what’s going on in Malik’s head.
Those expecting an out of this world science fiction jaunt might be disappointed; Encounter is a movie full of sudden gear changes and varying vantage points, meaning we stay closer to home than we might anticipate. However, in visuals, unearthly suspense and experiments with visual effects and body horror, Encounter certainly isn’t lacking tension or excitement. It’s an accomplished piece of filmmaking that skillfully satisfies our sense of adventure and craving for character-driven thrills.
Encounter is available to stream on Amazon Prime from the December 10th