If there’s one thing sci-fi movies are good for, besides exploring new worlds and analyzing social issues, it’s unpacking father-child relationships. Encounter’s first moments strike a stunning resemblance to many sci-fi “dad features,” from the twinkling, Interstellar-esque score and shots of sweeping cornfields, to the quickly established theme of familial reconnection in the midst of crisis. The film stars Riz Ahmed as Malik Khan, a divorced veteran who struggles to maintain a relationship with his two sons, Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada). Malik comes to his ex-wife’s home in the dead of night to whisk his sons away to safety after a meteor crashes on Earth and brings with it a plague of alien parasites that are covertly sweeping across the country. What follows is a film that desperately wants to be profound and moving, but ends up ringing hollow and unlikely to stick with you long after the credits roll.
Is That DEET-Free Alien Repellant?
Encounter’s first half is a truly tense affair. Malik doesn’t explain much about the hidden plague, only that anyone could be infected and insect repellant is their greatest resource; the infection is spread through insect bites. The unease is compounded by Malik’s strained relationship with his sons. The boys love their father, but also don’t really know him enough to fully understand what the journey ahead has in store for them. Bobby is probably no older than seven and has virtually no problem trusting his beloved father. In contrast, Jay is a pre-teen and doesn’t have the same rose-colored glasses. As Jay, Chauhan is a fiercely compelling actor. He doesn’t just stun when the time comes for an emotional outburst — his eyes are incredibly captivating. They can shine with wonder and adoration for his father as well as pierce with anger. Often with just his facial expressions, he balances the youthful desire to follow his father in this larger-than-life adventure with a questioning nature that looks to protect not just his little brother, but his own self from hurt and disappointment.
The performances of the three main characters help to bolster what ends up being a thinner story than it appears at first glance. In Encounter, the looming threat of an alien invasion is merely the first step into a film looking to explore the concept of family and how those connections can offer respite in seemingly hopeless scenarios. It’s a film with a lot to say — unfortunately, Michael Pearce, who directed the film and co-wrote it alongside Joe Barton, appears to be preoccupied with explaining every idea presented in excruciating detail. There’s a severe dip in quality by the midpoint, once the film shifts its perspective to feature other characters besides the main family. For an experience that begins so jittery and exciting, the second half is much more tonally inconsistent and meandering.
Pearce doesn’t seem to trust that the characters at the center of the film are enough to convey what he wants to say. Throughout Encounter, he cuts away to outside characters who take great pains to explain every single moment we’ve just taken in, all to make sure we don’t get lost. The film is by no means cerebral or complex enough to merit this constant jettisoning of tension and intrigue. As a result, it becomes a muddled character study. And that’s to say nothing of the haphazard beats the film tries to carelessly find time to explore. Encounter wants to say something about “Sovereign Citizen” type militants and their racism, as well as America’s cruel police system — but neither is handled with any real insight or nuance.
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Yes, I’ve Seen Interstellar
Despite all this, there’s still some charm to Encounter. It’s not a complete bore, mostly due to Ahmed’s fascinating performance as he bounces off Chauhan and Geddada. There is an edge to his salt-of-the-earth twang. We don’t really get much information about Ahmed’s character, other than the fact that he cares fiercely about his sons’ safety, as multiple characters make sure to hammer into our heads over and over. When the pressure builds to be too much, though, he can be incredibly scary. The moments where his temper flares are harsh reminders that, in reality, he is not accustomed to being the sole caretaker of his boys. A simple argument about how Bobby irresponsibly plays with a toy is enough to get Malik screaming so loud his son wets his pants. Soon, his boys begin to question how fit he is to protect them at all.
Encounter’s unraveling in its second half feels lazily paced and structured as more of the film’s inner workings reveal themselves. It’s more frustrating than anything else. By the end, the film only remains somewhat engaging because of the three characters that have broken away from the stiffness of the screenplay. Throughout, as the score swelled and I could feel how much the movie wanted me to become overwhelmed with emotion, I was reminded of other, better dad sci-fi features. It’s a gamble for a movie to imitate another film, because there’s always a chance the comparison won’t be favorable. And in this case, I found myself wishing I was just watching Interstellar instead.