How would you react if you found out that there was an insidious force threatening the livelihood of your family? Parents spring into protective mode if there is any danger facing their children, and may go to any lengths to ensure that harm does not come to them. Others may not react in the same instinctive way and take issue with methods and choices employed. When one man believes that he is the only one aware of an evil presence, convincing anyone else that he is doing what he must can be an impossible task. Encounter examines that idea in a potent and layered science fiction context.
Malik (Riz Ahmed) is a Marine who has been through numerous missions. He has lately been off the grid, embedded deep in the research of an alien life form that takes over human hosts and pushes them to vicious violence. Knowing how high the risks are, he shows up in the middle of the night to take his two young sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada), on what he bills as a road trip while he spirits them to safety. As they try to stay one step ahead of this alien menace, Malik deliberates on how much to share with his concerned parole officer (Octavia Spencer) and his ex-wife (Janina Gavankar) about what he knows and why he has taken his boys from their stable home.
This film begins with imagery of how the alien parasites take control of their hosts and mutate, spreading a brutal temperament from unsuspecting human to unsuspecting human with unnerving speed and ease. Malik sees the insects and understands what they can do, and he carries bug spray with him that he believes makes him immune to their effects. The presentation of this disturbing invasion explains Malik’s fear and makes his mission to save his sons abundantly clear to audiences who might not be able to imagine such a destabilizing extraterrestrial event actually occurring, fueled by Malik’s fractured psyche following the PTSD that he has been left with from war.
Yet others don’t seem to see what Malik does, and there is no explicit confirmation that what the audience is shown is indeed real. To Malik, this is all undeniable, and the fact that no one else knows about it is merely proof of its pervasiveness. But it’s also very possible that it exists only in his head, and his search for confirmation of his beliefs is fed by an active imagination, one that pushes him to do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do, and which create a true danger borne out of a manufactured one to the livelihood of his children and his own ability to make it through this crisis unharmed given the official legal position that he has kidnapped them.
Showcasing a father’s dedication to this offspring makes for an enormously compelling and inviting drama, one whose specifics, like an alien parasite invasion, are less relevant than the family dynamics portrayed. The Oscar-nominated Riz Ahmed turns in another excellent, nuanced performance as Malik, imbuing him with an energy and dedication that is grounded most in a love for the two boys he wants to see grow up. Chauhan and Geddada, in their debut film roles, are extraordinary finds, responding resiliently to an adult environment that demands much of them in relating to a father who seems alternately sound and manic. Audiences may experience Encounter, which is a far more accessible film than director Michael Pearce’s debut feature, Beast, as two entirely different movies, and both the sci-fi thriller and meditative drama are equally worthwhile.
Encounter is screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations section and will be released in theaters on December 3rd and on Amazon Prime Video on December 10th.