Riz Ahmed is impressive as Malik Khan, the ex-Marine who appears to be acting on top-secret orders, during a mission to eliminate the alien parasite that has spread across the planet.
Amazon Prime’s Encounter, starring Riz Ahmed, is an impressively unclassifiable film, it has to be said. The first 40 minutes or so look and sound like a contemporary upgrade on the alien invasion subgenre: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Thing (1982) and so on. The opening montage, a molecular-level blow-by-blow sequence of an insect piercing the skin, is deeply uncomfortable viewing given the assorted horrors of these last two years. The music, the persistent buzz of insect-sounds, everything adds up quite nicely into an atmosphere of all-pervasive paranoia.
And Riz Ahmed is impressive as Malik Khan, the ex-Marine who appears to be acting on top-secret orders, during a mission to eliminate the alien parasite that has spread across the planet. He really sells the alien-invasion paranoia stuff, too—from snapping a insect with a Bible in the opening scene to applying repellent over his naked torso in the exaggerated manner of deodorant commercials. But before Khan’s paranoia and his military purpose are deployed in service of the war-against-aliens, he whisks his children Jay and Bobby (Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada) away from his ex-wife Piya (Janina Gavankar) on a road trip. He really believes that his kids’ best shot at survival lies with him.
This is where Encounter reveals what it truly is: a highly interior family drama, albeit with all the bells and whistles of an old-fashioned sci-fi romp. The story is really all about how a family—a troubled father and his two precocious sons—react in very different ways to the threat of a rapidly approaching apocalypse. In that sense, the first 40-odd minutes are comparable to say, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, another ‘boxed-in’, largely indoors narrative where a traumatized family is forced to confront their fault lines in the face of an alien invasion.
Alas, Encounter’s second half, which hinges upon a drastic (and surely controversial) plot twist, doesn’t match up to Signs or some of the other alien invasion classics. At the risk of giving away too much, let’s just say that Malik Khan isn’t an entirely reliable narrator, although he never wavers in his love of or concern for his children. His deteriorating mental state is communicated masterfully by Riz Ahmed, his twitches and tics getting noticeably more pronounced through the course of the story. Sadly for Encounter, though, the screenplay cannot quite bear the burden of its wildly shifting tone and the aforementioned mega-twist. By the end of the movie’s runtime, you’re left wondering if this could’ve been a minor classic instead of the amusing oddity it ends up becoming.
Much of the amusement in question comes via Ahmed, who turns in another masterful performance as the haunted Malik Khan, confirming his growing reputation as one of Hollywood’s most versatile and unpredictable leading men. Lucian-River Chauhan and Aditya Geddada are also excellent as Malik’s children. The scenes where he interacts with them in the car have a strange, poignant quality to them. He jokes around with them, calls them ‘dude’ and makes up ‘games’ like Get to the Car as Fast as Humanly Possible, to hide the fact that the cops are after them.
It’s like a weird mixture of The Road-styled apocalyptic vibes with a slice of Life is Beautiful on the side, and during these moments, Encounter is a deeply engaging film.
Add this to the undeniable resonance of watching a Muslim protagonist grappling with the idea that his military service does precious little to counteract the racism he inevitably faces (even as he’s fighting the ultimate Other, an enemy that may end up destroying humanity). It’s a metaphor that risks being on the nose a few times, but Ahmed’s performance drives it home. Among the other players, however, Octavia Spencer is curiously wasted in a shallow, exposition-duty role as Khan’s parole officer. Janina Gavankar’s Piya also feels underdone, but that’s down to the brutal editing and narrative pace maintained throughout the film.
On the whole, I liked Encounter despite the stumbling second half. It’s a welcome change of pace from paint-by-numbers sci-fi capers with Joss Whedon-Lite wisecracks hogging most of the runtime. It ends up shooting for one genre too many, in the final equation. But at its best, Encounter is an intriguing document of the 21st century’s preoccupation with themes of paranoia, conspiracy and contagion.
The film is streaming on Amazon Prime video.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist, currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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