Movie Review: Riz Ahmed’s ‘Encounter’

It’s all in the terminology you opt to use. Secret rescue mission or kidnapping. Protective or paranoid. Alien invasion or mental illness. By opening on a meteor flashing across the night, and following that with National Geographic-style shots of bugs in nature, parasites attacking hosts, and news clips of violent rioters, we can’t help but assume that writer-director Michael Pearce (Beast, 2017) and co-writer Joe Barton want us to believe the end is near, in Encounter.

Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal, 2019) stars as Malik Khan, a former Marine and paroled ex-convict who is on a mission to rescue his boys from the “non-terrestrial micro-organisms” infecting the human race and taking over the planet. His oldest, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) is observant and smart, while the younger Bobby (Aditya Geddada) is a bit quick with his outbursts. Since the boys live with Malik’s ex-wife, his midnight visit awakens them for a “surprise” vacation trip.

The bulk of the movie is the father and sons road trip. Most of the best scenes – those that generate the most tension – are between these three. One exception is a terrific sequence featuring a confrontation between Malik and a cop during a 3:00 am traffic stop. It’s well-staged and plays right into our initial thoughts on the alien invasion, while simultaneously being our biggest clue. Soon, Malik is in touch with Hattie (Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, The Help, 2011), his sympathetic parole officer, who then involves the FBI – including kidnapping expert “Shep” (Rory Cochrane), who heads the manhunt and categorizes Malik as a “family annihilator” (exactly what it sounds like).

Cinematographer Benjamin Kracum makes the film looks top-end, and Riz Ahmed shows again what a powerful actor he is. The frustrating thing here is that the first half of the film is a terrific set-up for a story that doesn’t happen. Instead, this train changes tracks and devolves into something we’ve seen too many times before. If not for the included Townes Van Zandt song, this would have really “bugged” me.