Expectations are hard, especially when film clips and the internet are involved. Millions of people get an image in their head based on a second-hand plot synopsis and a two-minute trailer, and then it’s considered a failure when the work of art doesn’t conform to preconceived expectations. Judging from early, mixed assessments of Michael Pearce’s film Encounter, it seems as if critics have put the proverbial cart before the horse, expecting one movie before watching another.
The Catch-22 for a reviewer, then, lies in simultaneously leaving the narrative relatively unspoiled while elaborating on the fact that its trailer is not a wholly fair preview of the film itself. Suffice it to say that the trailer is both accurate and inaccurate; that the film both is and isn’t a science-fiction thriller; that one’s expectations of the film are both understandable and far-fetched based on its content. This is art about conspiracy, infection, paranoia, parenthood, and love; anything beyond that is a spoiler by necessity.
The film begins with a hypnotic, microscopic ballet of bioloogy, immunity, and pathology. Beautifully detailed digital images capture blood-sucking mosquitoes, punctured flesh, traveling micro-animals reminiscent of tardigrades, and a comprehensive sweep through an easily infected vascular system. In this hyperaware age of pandemics and vaccines, Encounter may have the most medically disturbing opening since Contagion, deeply connecting to all-pervasive contemporary fears of transmission and disease. It must be said that to many viewers, the rest of the film will simply be a let-down after the promise of this paranoid, timely opening section.
Riz Ahmed plays Malik Khan, a decorated Marine who seems to be one of the last men in a secretive mission to save humanity. He dwells in motels, bugs crawling around him, a gun always near as he writes letters to his two children. Whatever he is doing, he seems to be more knowledgeable than the rest of the world regarding an imminent apocalypse, and he wants to make sure his two young boys are saved from whatever is coming. Unfortunately, Malik is not a reliable narrator of his own story, and the audience wonders to what extent he is a sane man on a noble mission or an insane man with a death drive.
Ahmed is no stranger to ambiguity– his Emmy-winning performance in The Night Of constantly questioned whether or not his character had committed murder; in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he had viewers wondering just how involved he was in a kidnapping scheme; in his breakout role in the darkly hilarious Four Lions, he portrayed a simultaneously virulent terrorist and loving friend. Ahmed has thus proven that he is a master at contradiction, holding two diametrically opposed character traits within himself, almost like the way he is both a rap artist and an actor, and Encounter is no exception.
For half of the film, the audience is entirely unsure of just how legitimate Malik’s perspective and motivations are. The remaining half of the film may elaborate on this, revealing Malik’s more paranoiac and conspiratorial tendencies, but there is never any question as to whether Malik loves his children and is genuine about protecting them.
What’s diabolical about the film is how it implicates the audience in this kind of doubt, since, it must be noted, this is one of the extremely rare mainstream films (and one of the only science fiction films) where all main characters are people of color who increase Muslim representation. As seemingly racist police demand Malik place his hands on the vehicle, as suspicious onlookers question his motives throughout their road trip, and as a whole national police force unites to chase down one Muslim trying to protect his sons, the viewer’s presuppositions are interrogated and questioned.
In this sense, the film makes an extremely interesting companion piece to Jeff Nichols’ 2016 film Midnight Special, which similarly features an estranged father illegally yet lovingly taking his son on a sudden road trip while a massive police presence tails him.There is so much less hostility, doubt, and suspicion cast against Michael Shannon’s white protagonist in that film than there is against Riz Ahmed’s in Encounter.
In fact, according to director Michael Pearce, the original script was written about a white character named Marcus, but fortunately Ahmed’s presence, along with the state of the world, convinced him to change the general thrust and feel of the film. Perhaps the Encounter, then, is less about the infection of alien microbes or some bacterial invasion than it is about cross-cultural interactions and the fear each person has of The Other.
Technically speaking, Encounter looks and sounds fantastic. Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography captures the stark emptiness of off-roads, the California desert, and anonymous motels and diners; Jed Kurzel’s score carries the same iconoclastic mixture of dread and hope he displayed in filmes like Alien: Covenant, The Babadook, and Slow West; Amazon Studio’s 41% increase in the production budgets of original content certainly comes across in Encounter‘s slick, stylish but professional presentation.
Performatively, Ahmed nails the aforementioned contradictions he excels at, and the child actors (Aditya Geddada and, especially, Lucian-River Chauhan) are surprisingly effective and natural in their depiction of kids who want to love their dad but are increasingly skeptical of his sanity. If anything, their performances enhance Ahmed’s and force him into overdrive. As the actor later said in an interview with Deadline, “They say never work with kids and animals, and I thought it was because they can’t concentrate. It’s not – it’s because they’re better than you!”
The most critically lauded actor here, Octavia Spencer, is fantastic as Malik’s parole officer but is woefully underused and sadly superfluous to the narrative; the same can be said for practically any character outside of the confines of Malik’s speeding automobile, including the talented Rory Cochrane. The scenes in which the father and sons communicate are undoubtedly the most effective in the film and add to the humanistic portrayal of filial love and trust, but the film simply can’t sustain itself whenever it pulls away from the Khan family and their bittersweet road trip.
The most interesting and perhaps relevant question in the movie is hinted at but unfortunately underdeveloped– how should society, in a tolerant and free democracy, deal with people who have developed intense and insane conspiracy theories? To what extent is it possible to negotiate with and even understand people who have burrowed so deeply down antisocial rabbit holes that they no longer agree with universally accepted facts regarding reality? This is an extremely pertinent question in the age of conspiracy theories about Q, allegations of election fraud, fears of political coups, and paranoia regarding global pandemics and government surveillance.
The heart and soul of Encounter seems to be a struggle with this very question, asking the audience to both relate to and question the character of an unstable conspiracy theorist like Malik, who authentically believes that he is saving his children from an alien apocalypse but is actually putting them in grave danger as a result of his totally delusional quest. By the time the question can be properly digested, however, the film only teasingly flirts with an answer, resorting instead to action movie tropes like shoot-outs, car chases, and hostage negotiations before its abrupt (and yet still somehow powerful) ending.
Nonetheless, an emotional resonance remains after the screen dims, reminding viewers that however hostile and confusing the political and ideological climate may be, there is still the possibility of love, trust, and the benefit of the doubt we can all extend to one another. Otherwise, the fate of society is pretty grim.
Ultimately, Michael Pearce’s sophomore film is a beguiling yet entertaining frustration which never becomes exactly what one wishes and expects it to. It is not the sci-fi epic many assumed; it lacks the clear political allegories many had hoped for; it is neither big enough nor small enough; it is not exciting enough and yet manages to succumb to action-film histrionics. This could all be due to Pearce’s relative inexperience, or his last-minute decision to rewrite the protagonist in order to accomodate Riz Ahmed, or simply to Amazon’s uncertainty as to exactly how they should market this film. The frustration could even be wholly intentional.
Perhaps, as previously suggested, expectations about Encounters should be abandoned altogether, as it is uncompromisingly not the film anyone really wants it to be. Yet, in its defiant and peculiar way, this almost makes the film more memorable, regardless of whether that memory is positive or negative for the viewer. With focus groups, branding, test marketing, multiple stages of previews, and personalized algorithms all designed to create perfectly labeled content, it’s genuinely rare for any media to take audiences by surprise these days, even if the result is a disappointment. Encounters may not be a great film, but it is a specifically memorable one, a beautifully acted, haunting time capsule of the chaotic and conspiratorial 2020’s, a decade which has so far defied and will continue to subvert every single expectation thrown at it.